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Dangerous illusions of a democratic Shi'ite Iraq
By Marc Erikson

Iraqi Shiite leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, demands "one man (hopefully one person), one vote" general elections soonest to determine who will rule Iraq after the Americans and other occupying powers return the country to a measure of sovereignty and self-rule by end-June as promised.

In varying degrees, several influential American conservatives close to (and in) the Bush administration apparently agree and see in Sistani and the majority Shi'ites (some 60 percent of the Iraqi population) the last best hope for a democratic Iraq, a democratizing Middle East, and a successful outcome for American intervention. I am afraid such hopes and expectations are ill-founded and not supported by the historical record or present-day realities.

A sample neo-conservative opinion is Reuel Marc Gerecht's, a former Central Intelligence Agency operative and now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who wrote in Bill Kristol's The Weekly Standard on December 22: "If the Bush administration is wise, it will change its provisional-government plans and allow for direct elections as soon as feasible. If it refuses to change, and Sistani and the Shi'ites force it to abort the plan later, we will be left weaker than if we change now ... Though many in the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] and the administration may want to wish Sistani away, fortunately they can't. He is America's most powerful democratic weapon in Iraq, even if we don't know how to wield him." Gerecht adds: "If all goes well with Iraq's Shi'ites, the eventual spread of democracy throughout the Middle East becomes a real possibility. If the Shi'ites go south on us, then the Middle East's next 'Liberal Age' ... will likely be a long time coming."

A February 5 Wall Street Journal editorial, "Why not elections", chimed in with such opinion. It acknowledged concerns that "elections could mean 'one man, one vote, once'," but went on to say: "There are risks no matter what the US does, and we think this fear [of an election leading to Iranian-style clerical rule] misjudges both the Shi'ite majority and especially Ayatollah Sistani."

Already prior to the war, US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had voiced high expectations for a Shi'ite-ruled Iraq, telling National Public Radio on February 19 last year: "The Iraqi population is completely different ... The Iraqis are among the most educated people in the Arab world. They are by and large quite secular. They are overwhelmingly Shi'ite, which is different from the Wahhabis of the peninsula. They don't bring the sensitivity of having the holy cities of Islam on their territory."

Let's quickly dispense with Wolfowitz's "no holy cities" nonsense. Najaf and Karbala south of Baghdad are the cities where the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, Ali, and his son Husain (the Prophet's grandson), to whom the Shi'ite branch of Islam traces its origins, were martyred. The shrines housing their tombs are the Shi'ites' most sacred places. But more damaging than loose talk from ignorance to Wolfowitz's and others' expectations for - more accurately, illusions of - a Shi'ite-led Iraq at the core of a democratizing Middle East are recent historical facts, factional alignments in the Shi'ite community, and regional-strategic circumstances.

Let's look at the strategic issues first. Iraq's immediate neighbor, Shi'ite Iran, has a population of 67 million and one of the world's highest birth rates. A Shi'ite-controlled Iraq would be a natural ally to form a population bloc of well over 80 million. Jointly, they would sit on one of the world's largest oil reserves and could wield the type of power of which the long-oppressed Iraqi Shi'ites have long dreamed.

Would this combine prove a pillar of a democratizing Middle East as hoped for? Would the putative "quite secular" Shi'ites or followers of moderate cleric Sistani exercise their influence to help abolish mullah rule in Iran? Asking the questions, I believe, as good as answers them.

The Iranian mullahs have proved once again over the past several weeks that they are hardly on their way out. They disqualified en masse electoral candidates not to their liking. Against the protest of impotent reformers, they decreed that parliamentary elections would be held anyway. Predictably, the elections returned a conservative majority to do the mullahs' bidding.

As for the Iraqi Shi'ites, they are certainly not the secular/moderate lot unified behind "democrat" Sistani they are often portrayed to be. The "quietist" senior Najaf ayatollah's pre-eminence is of quite recent vintage, dating back to 1999, when the more politically engaged Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, leaning toward Iranian-style clerical rule, was assassinated (along with two sons) on the direct orders of Saddam Hussein's son Uday. Muhammad's surviving son Muqtada al-Sadr, age 31, is a more radical exponent of his father's beliefs and teachings. In 1999, he went underground and continued the effort of organizing the impoverished and oppressed Shi'ites of Najaf, Kufa and the slums of East Baghdad his father had started. The "Sadr movement" has some 2 million adherents and demonstrated its clout and political-religious creed when - on April 10 last year - it organized the mob that killed the American-backed Ayatollah Abd al-Majid al-Khoei, flown into Najaf from exile in London. After the killing, the mob surrounded the home of Sistani and demanded he leave Najaf forthwith. Only quick mobilization of Sistani followers prevented the ayatollah's expulsion or worse.

But the aggressive and authoritarian Sadr movement is by no means the only anti-democratic Shi'ite grouping aiming to establish an Iranian-style Islamic republic in Iraq. Factions of the al-Da'wa Party, founded in 1957 on the precepts of its theorist Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, aspire to the same goal - though al-Sadr's teachings are at variance with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's notion of the "guardianship of the jurisprudent", which requires that a clerical jurisprudent aided by clerical guardians should exercise supreme power in the Islamic state. (Khomeini, incidentally, developed his theory of clerical rule while in exile in Najaf from 1964-1978.)

In 1979, after Khomeini had taken power in Iran and his ideas and influence in Iraq spread, the Ba'ath Party regime of Saddam started a campaign of brutal repression of Shi'ite parties and extermination of their leaders. Al-Sadr was executed in 1980; the al-Da'wa Party was outlawed, large numbers of its members were arrested, tortured, and killed. Yet the party survived, in the form of underground cells in Iraq and groups of exiles in Iran and the United Kingdom.

The Iran-based branch was reinforced by thousands of the over 200,000 Shi'ite refugees from Iraq. For a while in the 1980s it made common cause with the pro-Khomeini terrorist "Islamic Jihad", which operated in Lebanon. There were connections as well to the Iranian Hezbollah. The Iraqi al-Da'wa cells played a leading role in the post-Gulf War 1991 uprising against Saddam and were decimated. The small London branch joined joined Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress (INC) in 1992, but split from it in 1995.

Similar twists, turns and splits have affected the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), founded in Iran in 1982 as an umbrella organization for groups aiming to overthrow the Saddam regime. Al-Da'wa first joined, then split from it. SCIRI later spawned the paramilitary Badr Brigade, which - with Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard weapons and training - grew into the Badr Corps of 8,000-10,000 in the years just prior to the Iraq war. At the outset of the war, as the corps positioned in Iran just across the border with northern Iraq, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld issued a strong warning to it to refrain from intervention. Since the war's end, however, the Badr Corps has established bases in several Iraqi provinces and functions as an armed militia for the SCIRI.

Though in the past (and continuing into the present) these varied Shi'ite groups have nearly as often been at each other's throats as at the Ba'athists, they share a radical Islamic outlook more akin to Khomeini's or the current Iranian supremo Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's than Sistani's. I consider it a dangerous illusion that - after a putative electoral victory of Shi'ites under Sistani's leadership - the likes of Muqtada al-Sadr or al-Da'wa and Badr Corps leaders and their followers could be smoothly integrated into a peaceable Shi'ite political body leading a unified, democratic Iraq. Quite understandably, with thousands of their former comrades in arms buried in Saddam's mass graves, hatred for the once Ba'ath Party-led Sunni minority runs deep, as do motives of revenge and retribution. In the long run, more importantly, these radicals will not foreswear the ideas for which many of them have fought for decades. With a popular following and armed to the teeth, why should they subordinate their goals and aspirations to those of a weaker leader's? Badr Corps commander Abdul Aziz al-Hakim spelled out the strategy quite clearly: first have elections, in which Shi'ites under moderate leadership win an absolute majority; then use popular pressure and force transformation into a Khomeini-style Islamic republic. It's the old Leninist two-stage strategy by the precepts of which the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917 after intermittent moderate Menshevik rule under Alexandr Kerenski.

What's the upshot of these considerations? The relatively unified, in religious and political terms moderate, and modestly pro-American, pro-democracy Shi'ite bloc on which to build Iraq's political future does not exist. A government formed by a Shi'ite parliamentary majority elected in early national polls would quickly either become radicalized or be pushed aside by radical Shi'ite groups attempting to institute an Islamic republic. At that point, the country would either split or become embroiled in civil war leading to a split.

Modern Iraq was created at the end of World War I, when the British Colonial Office merged the provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra of the defeated Ottoman Empire into one political entity, which emerged as an independent nation in 1932. It was as arbitrary a creation as Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia after the defeat of the Hapsburg Empire. It may yet, and perhaps not unreasonably so, meet the same fate. If for some reason such fate is deemed undesirable by the present occupying powers or neighboring countries - the US may not look kindly on the prospect of a greater Shi'ite realm centered on Iran; Turkey may not welcome the prospect of an independent Kurdish entity that could prove a powerful magnet for the unification of all ethnic Kurds into one nation - an election scenario that returns a Shi'ite majority unrestrained by constitutional power-sharing provisions with Sunnis and Kurds will have to be shelved. Only a constituent assembly selected separately by the ethnically/religiously separate components of the Iraqi population jointly working out a federalist constitution with far-reaching autonomy provisions has any chance of maintaining a unified Iraq.

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Feb 26, 2004

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