Courtesy Reuters

The Shi'ites and the Future of Iraq


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

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