In late April, barely two weeks after the collapse of the Baath regime, elated Iraqi Shi'ites flocked to the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala, renewing an annual ritual of lament and remembrance that had been banned by the Iraqi government since 1977. Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, died at the battle of Karbala in ad 680 while attempting to claim the caliphate from the Umayyads, having been betrayed by the people of Kufa in southern Iraq. His martyrdom has come to symbolize the quest of Shi'ites for justice, and their visitation of his shrine is both an act of protest and an expression of hope. Amid the power vacuum created by the downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime and with foreign forces occupying Iraq, the procession this year assumed a concrete meaning relating to both the grievances and the aspirations of Iraqi Shi'ites. As one pilgrim put it to an American television network, "We just got rid of one tyrant ruler. We don't want a new tyrant instead. We want a just government, not one which is imposed on us."

In the wake of the war, important questions about Iraq remain. Will the newly energized Shi'ite majority seek an Islamic government modeled after Iran, or will its members agree to share power with other communities? Will the United States succeed in establishing itself as a credible broker, especially in Shi'ite eyes? The future of Iraq may well depend on the answers.


Although many of the formative events of Shi'ite Islam took place in Iraq, Shi'ites became a majority there only during the nineteenth century, as the bulk of the country's nomadic Arab tribes settled down and took up agriculture. These tribesmen, both those who converted to the Shi'ite sect in the south and those who remained Sunni because they kept to their desert way of life in central Iraq, still share Arab cultural attributes. Behind the power struggle between Sunnis and Shi'ites in modern Iraq, therefore, lie two sectarian groups that are quite similar. The divisions between them are primarily political rather than ethnic or cultural, and reflect the competition of the two groups over the right to rule and to define the meaning of nationalism in the country. Whereas the Sunni ruling elite adopted a wider Arab nationalism as its main ideology, the Shi'ites have preferred Iraqi nationalism, which stresses the distinct values and heritage of Iraqi society.

Both communities have had a stake in preserving the country's territorial integrity ever since the British creation of modern Iraq in 1921. For the Sunni minority, which forms 17 percent of the population, an intact Iraq is a matter of survival. For the Shi'ite majority, which constitutes 60 percent, the question is rather one of gains and losses. Were Iraq to splinter, Shi'ites in the south would lose Baghdad, despite the fact that Shi'ites constitute at least half the city's population. The Shi'ites would also lose the shrine cities of Kazimain and Samarra, and substantial revenues from oil wells in the north. They would also have to give up their dream of controlling a large and prosperous state, a dream nourished since their failed 1920 revolt against the British.

In the months leading up to that revolt -- which occurred amid a power vacuum between the fall of Ottoman rule and the solidification of its British successor -- the Shi'ite religious leaders in Iraq forged an alliance with the Sunni Sharifians led by King Faysal, who were then based in Syria. The two groups agreed on a formula advocating an Arab Islamic state ruled by an Arab emir bound by a legislative assembly. Whereas the Sharifians considered this formula an opening for their rule, the Shi'ite clerics hoped that it would enable them to oversee the legislative process once British control of the country was removed. The Shi'ite tribes duly rose in revolt, but they were crushed by superior British arms. And then, to the Shi'ites' dismay, the British brought in the Sharifians and a group of ex-Ottoman officers to rule. In subsequent years, Shi'ites would claim that their uprising had enabled the Sunni minority to attain power and enjoy all the fruits of office. The feeling among Iraqi Shi'ites that they were robbed of power back then is still strong today and explains their objection to any power arrangement that would again assign them a marginal role in Iraq's politics.

Iraq's Sunni rulers, both the Sharifians and the ex-Ottoman officers who ruled until 1958 and then the Baathists who captured power a decade later, exercised a monopoly over lawmaking and built an army capable of checking Shi'ite opposition. The Sunni ruling elite split the Shi'ite leadership, co-opting the tribal sheikhs and reducing the power of the clergy. The state dealt a blow to the intellectual position and sources of income of the religious seminaries in Najaf, which in 1946 lost its standing as the leading Shi'ite center of learning to Qum in Iran. The Baath government also executed senior Shi'ite Arab clerics, notably members of the Sadr and the Hakim families, to make sure that a strong and unified Shi'ite religious establishment capable of playing a role in national politics did not emerge.

The events surrounding the 1978-79 Iranian Islamic revolution emboldened Iraqi Shi'ites and led them to openly confront the Baath regime. But as the cleric Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr acknowledged before his execution in 1980, the socioeconomic and political conditions in Iraq were not ripe for an Islamic revolution. Moreover, the concept of the rule of the jurist, who commands absolute religious and political authority, as developed by Ayatollah Khomeini and implemented in Iran after 1979, did not gain ground among the large majority of Iraqi Shi'ites, including lay members of the Islamic Daawa Party. In any case, the power of the Daawa inside Iraq was broken during the 1980s, and subsequently the organization split into various groups based, until recently, in Qum, Damascus, and London.

The differences between Iraqi and Iranian Shi'ism were borne out during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 and the 1991 Shi'ite uprising in southern Iraq. During the war with Iran, Iraqi Shi'ites, who formed a majority of the rank and file of the Iraqi infantry, fought against their Iranian coreligionists, showing that their loyalty to the Iraqi state overrode their sectarian allegiance and their discontent with the Sunni-dominated Baath regime. The 1991 uprising, in turn, was spontaneous and disorganized, lacking a prominent religious leader to inspire and direct it. It was only after rebels took control of large parts of southern Iraq that the grand Shi'ite religious leader Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei (who died in Najaf in 1992) reluctantly sanctioned a form of Shi'ite governing body in Iraq, although he did not call for an Islamic government along the lines advocated by Khomeini.

Khoei's reluctance to get involved in worldly affairs -- in essence, an attempt on his part to shield the highest Shi'ite religious leadership, the marjaiyya, from politics -- reflected an old tension within Shi'ite Islam between two conflicting tendencies, quietism and activism. Whether clerics should confine their activities to religious affairs or also seek a role in politics has been a matter of fierce debate among Shi'ites for well over a century. This tension erupted this past March, in the power vacuum created by the war and the collapse of the Baath regime. The tension has been reinforced by a competition for power within the Iraqi Shi'ite religious hierarchy, Iran's attempt to influence that competition, and the presence of U.S. troops in the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala.

The most senior religious leader, Ali Sistani (a student of Khoei and an advocate of quietism), refused to let himself and the marjaiyya be dragged into the political turmoil and found himself the target of death threats. Some low-ranking clerics, meanwhile, most notably the young Muqtada al-Sadr of Najaf and Muhammad al-Fartusi in Baghdad, issued bold statements, inspired by the religious leader Kazim al-Husseini al-Hairi of Qum, calling for an Islamic government in Iraq. They also moved to extend their influence in some Shi'ite cities in the south and in the slum area of Baghdad known before the war as Saddam City (now renamed Sadr City, after the religious leader Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was gunned down in Najaf in 1999). The fierce struggle within Shi'ite religious circles took an ominous turn on April 10 with the murder of Abd al-Majid al-Khoei, son of Abu al-Qasim, who had been brought to Najaf by American forces in the hopes that he would be able to exert his influence in the city. The killing of Abd al-Majid, a man who exemplified the sober and moderate face of Iraqi Shi'ism, has underscored the role of violence in Iraqi politics as well as the difficulty of reaching an agreement on power-sharing in postwar Iraq.


Unlike Sunnis, who in theory are expected to obey their rulers and even tolerate a tyrant in order to avoid civil strife and preserve the cohesion of the Muslim community, observant Shi'ites recognize no authority on earth except that of the imam. The twelfth imam is believed to be hidden from view and is expected to return one day as a messianic figure, the Mahdi. In his absence, there can be no human sovereign who is fully legitimate. This ambivalence toward worldly power has resulted in different interpretations within Shi'ite Islam regarding government accountability and the role of the clerics in state affairs. Khomeini's concept of the rule of the jurist is only one among several competing views.

The collapse of Saddam's regime has given Shi'ite debates on the meaning of a just government in the Iraqi context a greater urgency. There are constituencies, including some elements of the Daawa Party and its offshoots, that advocate an Islamic government in Iraq. They have conflicting visions, however, of what an Islamic government should be, ranging from Khomeini-style rule of the jurist to an Islamic government run primarily by laymen -- a form generally more in tune with the modern experience of Sunni Islamists. Some members of these groups are prepared to pursue their goals through violence.

Nevertheless, the large majority of Iraqi Shi'ites probably have no desire to mimic the Islamic Republic of Iran. They are aware of the situation there and do not want to move from a secular totalitarian system to an overbearing theocracy. Iraq's political culture and social makeup, moreover, are very different from those of Iran. Quite apart from the existence of Sunnis, Kurds, Chaldeans, and Turkmen in the country, the Iraqi Shi'ite community is itself diverse. There are secularists (including liberals and communists) and various religious groups, urban and rural dwellers, rich and poor, Shi'ites who have never left Iraq and those who have spent decades in exile. There is no single leader who can speak for all Iraqi Shi'ites, let alone oversee the transformation of postwar Iraq into an Iranian-style Islamic republic.

That said, defining the relationship between religion and politics in Iraq will be a major challenge facing Shi'ite religious groups. Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who in the past advocated an Islamic government, has more recently adopted a different tone. Hakim returned to Najaf this past May after 23 years in exile, and he is positioning himself as a contender for Shi'ite religious leadership in Iraq. It remains to be seen what course he will choose, given the complex social reality in Iraq and the U.S. presence there. If he adopts a pragmatic course, Hakim will be following in the footsteps of the Lebanese cleric Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, who acknowledged that the conditions for an Islamic state did not exist in Lebanon.

The Iraqi Shi'ites, together with their non-Shi'ite compatriots, will need to develop a national identity broad enough to unite the country. Together, Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs constitute 75 percent of the population. The two groups are linked by a large number of mixed marriages and share social codes and cultural attributes that could form the basis of an Iraqi nationalism drawing on the ideas of the literary figure Ali al-Sharqi, who died in 1964. Sharqi offered a vision of nationalism that built on the strong Arab tribal character of Iraqi society. He advocated the development of a nationalist ideology that combined broadly Eastern and Arab elements with specifically Iraqi values and heritage. Sharqi's vision was also clearly influenced by the effort of Egyptians to use their ancient past as a foundation myth. His ideas have influenced later generations of Iraqi intellectuals, and they may be further developed as a new Iraqi nation takes shape.

As part of the founding principles of a new Iraq, the Arab majority will need to offer the Kurds a pact safeguarding their sociopolitical and cultural rights. The 1970 accord signed between Saddam and Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani has been referred to over the years by both Iraqi Arabs and Kurds as a basis for addressing the Kurdish question in Iraq. In return for a similar offer, backed by the United States and the un and receiving Turkey's tacit approval, the Kurds should be prepared to forge new links with their Arab compatriots and undertake to resolve the "Kurdish problem" within the framework of a unified Iraq.

Until such time as political parties have had the opportunity to develop and Iraqis are ready to elect a national leader, it will be necessary to have an interim government that represents the entire communal makeup of Iraq and includes both secular and religious figures. To maintain the credibility of the government and avoid exacerbating an already tense political situation, ministerial posts should be filled by Iraqis who are respected within the country. Power could be shared among Iraq's major communities according to an agreed formula. The main communities are likely to develop religious and sociocultural institutions that would operate on the principle of checks and balances. These institutions would not necessarily reinforce sectarian and ethnic divisions, but rather would manage the competition among various groups within each community and reduce tension between Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Kurds.

Whether in the long run Iraq can move from a confessional system to become a democratic state based on individual representation is a question that will be answered primarily by the actions and wishes of Iraqis themselves.


The decision of Shi'ites not to rebel against the regime of Saddam during the recent war has underscored their ambivalence toward the United States as well as their strong Iraqi national identity. Their inaction can largely be explained by their sense that they were betrayed by the United States during their uprising at the end of the first Gulf War. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush encouraged Iraqis to take matters into their own hands and overthrow their leader, but when the Shi'ites rose up his administration refused to help, enabling army units loyal to Saddam to crush the uprising.

The U.S. decision to abandon the Shi'ites in 1991 touched a collective nerve and evoked memories of their long history of betrayal, stretching back to the events surrounding the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in Karbala in 680. In 2003, these memories of the past fused with nationalist and religious sentiments to make Iraqi Shi'ites leery of the invading foreign, Christian forces. Although Iraqi Shi'ites yearned for the collapse of the Baath regime, they were also concerned about their image in the Arab world, which is predominantly Sunni. They sought to avoid accusations similar to those leveled against them after 1991, namely that they constitute a fifth column within Iraq and are collaborators with Western powers. Shi'ites are unsure, moreover, about long-term U.S. goals. As Iraqi nationalists, they dislike the prospect of a lengthy U.S. occupation. They abhor the idea of an Iraqi government installed by the United States to further America's interests, just as the Sharifians were brought in by the British in 1921. In spite of repeated assurances by the Bush administration that Iraq's oil belongs to its people, the Shi'ites still seem worried that the United States is essentially seeking to dominate the oil resources of their country.

There is a big gap, in short, between the Bush administration's vision of a new Iraq and the expectations of Shi'ites for the post-Saddam era. Whereas some members of the administration have envisaged a Western-style democratic Iraq led by a secular pro-U.S. government, Shi'ites (and many other Iraqis) appear to prefer an independent Iraq with a system of government that reflects their own culture and traditions and that does not serve as a base for U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf. The destruction caused by the war, and the delay in restoring services and security, has further widened the gap. Defining the new U.S.-Iraqi relationship will not be easy, therefore, and will require compromises on both sides.

In the period since the war, America's credibility has been put to the test in Iraq. The Bush administration has thus far made little effort to reconcile the contradiction between its grand vision of a new Iraq and the limited resources it has actually committed to rebuilding the country. Making matters worse, the administration has been sharply divided internally over how to proceed. And America, for understandable reasons, has refrained from projecting itself as the power in Iraq and has not indicated how long it intends to stay in the country. But unless the United States makes it clear that it intends to stay for the long haul, important Iraqi constituencies will not cooperate with the U.S. civilian authority, considering it politically imprudent. They will show either indifference or hostility toward the U.S. presence in the country.

Washington needs to ensure that the civil disorder in southern Iraq and parts of Baghdad does not develop into a large-scale anti-American protest movement or even into a revolt, as happened in 1920 following the British occupation. One sensible move would be for the Bush administration to reach out to the Shi'ites and acknowledge that the United States made a mistake in not coming to their aid in 1991. As the victorious power, the United States can afford to appear humble. An apology to the Shi'ites followed by some kind of concrete gesture would not undercut U.S. stature in the country but would rather help rebuild American credibility both in Iraq and among Shi'ites in the larger Arab world. Officials involved in the reconstruction effort also need to work with moderate Shi'ite religious and tribal leaders, isolate the radical clerics, and take pains to revive the secular middle class and the intelligentsia, many of whose members are Shi'ites. Over the course of more than three decades, the Baathists wiped out all forms of civil secular organization not controlled directly by the party. A reinvigorated middle class would help check the power of those religious groups that have taken advantage of the power vacuum to emerge as the country's most vocal, organized, and politically mobilized force. Washington will not be able to satisfy all Iraqi Shi'ites, but it may be able to slowly win the hearts of the silent majority.

Over time, a relationship between the United States and Iraqi Shi'ites built on trust could facilitate a modus vivendi, perhaps even a dialogue, between America and Iran. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the threat to U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf does not emanate from an Iranian Shi'ite revolution that has lost its fervor, but rather from the growth of Sunni Islamic radicalism influenced by the Wahhabi-Hanbali school dominant in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism's hatred for America is rivaled only by its hostility to Shi'ism. To contain its spread, the United States will need to build bridges to Shi'ites in the Arab world as well as to the reformers in Iran. How the Bush administration handles the Iraqi Shi'ites, therefore, will be crucial not only for the future of Iraq but also for the future of the entire region.

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  • Yitzhak Nakash is Associate Professor of Middle Eastern History at Brandeis University and the author of The Shi'is of Iraq.
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