Middle East

Divided Shi'ites in power play
By Hooman Peimani

Against a background of speculation and hope on the part of the Americans for a Shi'ite uprising in Baghdad, Mohsen Hakim, a leader of the Iranian-based Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), stated this week that the Shi'ite residents of Baghdad "will try to remain on the sidelines to suffer the least possible damage, until they are certain that the Iraqi regime's repressive machine has been annihilated. When this point is reached, they will start organizing themselves."

While the rapid military developments in Iraq have made the behavior of Baghdad residents mainly irrelevant now, the Hakim statement indicated SAIRI's determination to claim its share of power in a post-Saddam Hussein era.

Hakim's statement was followed by the announcement of the SAIRI leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir Hakim, that he will soon return to Iraq after 23 years of living in exile in Iran. His host country has generously helped him create his group, the largest and the most organized Iraqi Shi'ite group with a significant well-armed and well-trained military wing, the Badr Corps, whose numerical strength is estimated at 10,000 to 20,000.

On the day of the announcement, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi stated that the SAIRI and its military wing are Iraqi entities, which make their own decisions and have nothing to do with the Iranian government. He added that Iran "sees no reason to interfere in their attitude and policies and do[es] not provide a safe place for them". Asefi's statement on the SAIRI's independence sought to relieve his government of any responsibility regarding Ayatollah Hakim's decision and the predictable transfer to Iraq of the SAIRI members residing in Iran. This seemed prudent given the American government's warnings to Iran regarding the activities of the Badr Corps inside Iraq and its request that Iran should reign in that military force.

For its opposition to Saddam and his ruling Ba'ath Party, Ayatollah Hakim was tortured and imprisoned by the Iraqi regime prior to his flight to Iran in 1980. For the same reason, many of his close family members, including his brothers, were executed by Saddam's regime. Given Ayatollah Hakim's well-known political credentials, the SAIRI's role in the uprising of Iraqi Shi'ites following the 1991 Gulf War and several hit-and-run military operations inside Iraq since the early 1980s, there is no question about the SAIRI 's political influence in Iraq. However, the extent of such influence among Iraqis is yet to be seen.

The Shi'ites, who constitute for over 60 percent of Iraq's population, have been politically, economically and socially marginalized by the Iraqi Ba'ath regime, representing mainly the Sunni minority. Being dissatisfied with this situation, they will surely seek to secure a proportional representation in any future Iraqi political system. Given their numerical strength and years of subjugation, there is no doubt, if any at all, that a post-Saddam Iraq cannot be stable unless their grievances are met.

Thanks to decades of dictatorship and the constant suppression of opposition groups, the majority of Iraqi opposition groups are weak, unarmed, foreign-based and/or lack strong popular backing. Exceptions are the two major Kurdish groups - the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - and the SAIRI. Although there is no strong evidence of its widespread popularity inside Iraq, the documented SAIRI operations inside Iraq, including the failed assassination of Saddam's son Udi in the 1990s, indicates a degree of organization and backing among Iraqi Shi'ites. This is in addition to its numerically significant Iran-based Iraqi supporters consisting of dissidents, refugees and prisoners of war who have refused to return to Iraq since the end of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88).

The SAIRI has every reason to welcome the end of the Saddam regime, against which it has fought since the early 1980s. However, it does not wish to see an American-controlled Iraq in which its interests and those of its Shi'ite constituency could be undermined. As a result, it has attended the American-organized Iraqi opposition conferences since last year. Furthermore, it has been in touch with the Americans and the British through its offices in Washington and London, and also through a pro-American Iraqi opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress (INC). However, it has refused to play along with the American plan for Iraq. Thus, when the US-led war broke out, the SAIRI did not take sides. Its leader, Ayatollah Hakim, urged Iraqi Shi'ites to remain neutral since he blamed both the Americans and the Saddam regime for the war.

Now that the post-Saddam era appears to have begun, the SAIRI is preparing to establish itself as a main political force inside Iraq. Even though it is a major organized group in the absence of strong political contenders, the SAIRI is concerned about an unfolding American plan to create an alternative Shi'ite leadership to Ayatollah Hakim.

Reportedly, with the approval of the American government, a London-based exiled Iraqi Shi'ite leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Abdelmajid Khoei (al-Khoei), returned to Iraq's holy city of Najaf on Monday. However, his killing on Thursday by a yet-to-be-identified assassin in the holy shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf unexpectedly ended his hoped-for contribution to the mentioned plan. Khoei could have capitalized on his reputation as an anti-Saddam high-ranking Shi'ite clergy and on that of his late father, Ayatollah Sayyed Abdul-Qasim Khoei, who died in house arrest in 1992. Khoei was hacked to death by a mob at the shrine along with Haider al-Kadar, a widely disliked Saddam loyalist and a part of his ministry of religion. According to some reports, Khoei had tried to intervene to defuse a confrontation between rival Shi'ite groups.

Khoei had called on many occasions for Shi'ite cooperation with the US. His return to Shi'ite-dominated Najaf 180 kilometers south of Baghdad immediately after the American forces' capture of the city suggested that the Americans were planning to promote him as an acceptable alternative to pro-Iranian Ayatollah Hakim. Beside his potential role as a legitimizer of the American occupation of Iraq, his rushed return to a country still in the midst of war indicated an American plan to prevent Iran from influencing Iraq through the SAIRI once the Saddam regime is fully eliminated.

US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's warnings last week requesting Iran to rein in the Badr Corps seemed to be a complementary measure to ensure the absence of a pro-Iranian organized armed Shi'ite group capable of challenging the American plan. Such a group could potentially mushroom in Iraq if there is a power vacuum in the post-Saddam era. The simultaneous return of Ahmad Chalabi, the Shi'ite leader of the secular INC, to Iraq's city of Nassiriya, is another aspect of the US plan, while serving American efforts to control the occupied country.

Apart from the need for his presence inside Iraq to rally support around the SAIRI, Ayatollah Hakim's decision to return to Iraq, most probably to Najaf where he is well-known, seems to aim at meeting the American challenge. Khoei's death should not allay the SAIRI's fears as the traditional rivalry among the Iraqi high-ranking Shi'ite clergy provides an opportunity for the Americans to find another ally to fill the gap caused by Khoei's bloody removal from the political scene.

SAIRI is gearing up to prevent its exclusion from the political scene in the post-Saddam era. Having that concern in mind, London SAIRI representative Hamed al-Bayati implied his group's readiness to challenge any plan to that effect, while intending not to provoke American hostility. He stated that if Washington "tries to exclude us, we will see what our position will be. So far this is not the case."

Given the mentioned background, Saddam's fall will provoke fierce competition over political control not only among different ethnic and religious groups, but also within Iraq's numerically dominant Shi'ites, with potential dire consequences for Iraq's stability and quite possibly for that of Iran as well.

Dr Hooman Peimani works as an independent consultant with international organizations in Geneva and does research in international relations.

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Apr 12, 2003

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