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Iraq's religious tide cannot be turned back

By Nir Rosen

BAGHDAD - With the June 30 deadline for the handover of sovereignty from the occupying coalition powers to an Iraqi authority, the search is on for a suitable recipient. While the Americans handed control of Fallujah to a coalition of warlords and radical clerics, they are still searching for some authority in the south with any sort of legitimacy to take over the cities there where US troops have been battling Shi'ite militias. While Sunnis in Iraq have former military officers who can command authority, they still rely on radical Islamic clerics to provide them with legitimacy. In the Shi'ite south, there are no secular or military authorities, only clerics. It would seem that the United States is on the road to creating an Iraq of fiefdoms ruled by warlords and clerics, as is the case now in Afghanistan.

A year after conquering Iraq, the US military fought bloody battles to retake many cities, and in the case of Fallujah it was forced to cede control of the city to the very people it had wrested it from a year before. A mere two months before a promised transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people, the United States was fighting a two-front war against Sunnis and Shi'ites, belying official claims that "the enemy" is a small minority of "former regime loyalists" and foreign fighters and increasingly proving that the enemy is the Iraqi people who have rejected the occupation.

Armed gangs control the streets. To anyone listening to the Iraqi people, this was all fore-ordained and the only surprise has been how quickly US blunders provoked the inevitable. It will get worse before it gets even more worse. Though Iraq's Sunnis and Shi'ites are united in their hatred of the United States, when the common enemy has left they will not celebrate long before turning on each other in a bloody civil war over who will define the nature of the new theocracy in Iraq.

Signs of trouble were evident already in the December 2002 London Iraqi opposition congress. The final statement of that meeting declared that Islam was the official religion of Iraq and that Islam was "the" source of legislation, rather than merely "a" source, as the English translation of the interim constitution now says. But this was the opposition in exile. What were the Iraqi people thinking and what would they want? The administration insisted that Iraqis were secular, like their regime, and would not seek to establish a theocracy, as is the case with their neighbors in Saudi Arabia and Iran. When US civil administrator L Paul Bremer announced that Islam would not be the primary source of law for the new constitution, his decision was greeted with universal condemnation by Shi'ite and Sunni leaders alike.

While Iraqi society was once among the most secular in the Middle East, it has become increasingly religious. Iraq's once avowedly secular Ba'ath Party was founded by a Shi'ite, and Shi'ites had once dominated the Communist Party. In the late 1950s, the Dawa (Religious Call) movement was formed by Shi'ite theological students to combat this communist influence in their slums. The movement benefited from the regime's decimation of their communist rivals. Its leader Muhammad Baqir Sadr wrote books about Islamic politics and economics to prove that Islam provided solutions to all social questions. He was killed in 1980 for opposing the regime, and has since been known as "the first martyr".

The paranoid Ba'ath Party regime sought to control every part of society. It was most threatened by the autonomy of the Shi'ite clergy, organized in a loose academy called the Hawza in the holy city of Najaf. The ability of Shi'ite religious institutions to mobilize tens of thousands of their followers terrified the Ba'athists, as it had the Ottomans long before them, and Saddam Hussein sought to dominate the Hawza through violence and co-option. From 1969, Shi'ites were in constant battle with the regime, and violence erupted every year. Every time the Iraqi government clashed with Iran, the Ba'ath regime demanded that the Shi'ite clergy take sides in the disagreements between the two neighbors. Shi'ite alienation from the Ba'ath Party began in 1963 when the party split along denominational lines. The leftist wing of the party, mostly Shi'ite, was seen as pro-Syrian, and the centrist anti-Syrian wing was mostly Sunni. The two Ba'ath Party-run states competed for legitimacy, and Iraq's Shi'ites were seen as suspect since Syria was run by the Alawis, a sect that had split off from the Shi'ites.

The legacy of the first martyr was inherited by his nephew Muhammad Sadiq Sadr, who declared himself the wali, or leader of the faithful, a position higher even than Iranian Islamic revolution leader ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's, and whose work focused on the Mahdi, or Shi'ite messiah who is expected to return on judgment day. Sadr established a network of followers in towns and villages throughout Iraq during the 1990s. He was less a philosopher and more a populist and mystic, his writings obsessed with the return of the Mahdi. Sadr and his sons were assassinated by the regime in 1999 for opposing Saddam and Muhammad Sadiq Sadr became known as the second martyr. Sadr's serene Santa Claus-like black-turbaned visage dominated the walls of every Shi'ite neighborhood alongside posters of his uncle and other radical figures such as ayatollah Khomeini of Iran.

Immediately after the collapse of the Ba'ath regime a year ago, his last remaining son, Muqtada, who had been living in hiding, donned an imama, or cleric's turban, and capitalized on this vast network to establish offices of his representatives throughout the country, seizing mosques, religious and former Ba'athist headquarters, and even hospitals. Muqtada's representatives provided security and social services, filling the power vacuum and even changing the name of Saddam City, the vast Shi'ite slum of eastern Baghdad, home to about 3 million, to Sadr City. By the time the occupying powers had realized a state and government had virtually been created under their noses, it was too late to undermine Sadr's authority.

Muqtada attracted the alienated and angry Shi'ites, pitting his movement against the American occupiers and more traditional clerics, such as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Last June, when Muqtada's name was proposed as a possible member of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, other Shi'ite members rejected the idea. Muqtada and his constituency were radicalized by the exclusion, and he was pushed into the hands of Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, his father's top student and intellectual heir, living in Iranian exile. Though Muqtada's politics were inchoate, lacking ideology and seeking only inclusion and power, Haeri was a rigid Khomeinist, with a clearly defined political program aimed at establishing a theocracy in Iraq, just as Khomeini had established his in Iran 25 years ago when he ousted the monarch.

Sunni-Shi'ite cooperation against the Americans emerged immediately after the war. Ahmad Kubeisi, Iraq's most important Sunni scholar, led a protest in April 2003. The sermon that followed the prayer was unique for its nationalism. Baghdad had been occupied by the Mongols, the sheikh said, referring to the sacking of the capital of the Muslim world in 1258. Now new Mongols were occupying Baghdad and they were creating divisions between Sunnis and Shi'ites. The Shi'ites and Sunnis were one, however, and they should remain united and reject foreign control. They had all suffered together as one people under Saddam's rule. Saddam oppressed all Iraqis and then he abandoned them to suffer. There were no Sunnis or Shi'ites, all Iraqis were Muslims, and they had defended their country together from the Americans and British as a united people.

On top of the mosque's walls stood young men holding banners proclaiming "One Iraq, One People", "We Reject Foreign Control", "Sunnis Are Shi'ites And Shi'ites Are Sunnis, We Are All One", "All the Believers Are Brothers", and similar proclamations of national unity. Throughout Iraq radical Sunnis and Shi'ites held joint prayers and their militias supported each other, culminating in the battles of Fallujah, Najaf and Karbala, when radical Sunni, former Ba'athist and hardline Shi'ite militias, collectively known as the muqawama, or resistance, sent medical aid and weapons to one another and even fought together.

Sunnis were expected to be secular, but in the past decade they, too, had become radicalized. It started in 1979, when Khomeini seized power in Iran. Khomeini condemned the Ba'athist regime for its "atheism" and "apostasy", and alleged it was anti-Muslim. Seeking to deflect these blows, Saddam changed his rhetoric. Michel Aflaq, an atheist of Christian background who had founded the Ba'ath Party, was rewritten into history as a Muslim. During the crisis resulting from his August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Saddam increased his Islamic propaganda, portraying himself as an Islamic warrior battling the infidels and heretics led by the Americans.

In January 1991, Saddam added the words "Allahu akbar", or "God is great", to the Iraqi flag. He was now leading an Islamic army. In 1993, Saddam reversed his brutally secular policy and began the cultural Islamization of Iraq through what he called al-hamlah al-imaniya, or "the faith campaign", giving Sunni Islam a huge boost. He built lavish new mosques, and 5 million Korans were printed and distributed. Islamic studies were increased from two hours a week to six to eight hours a week, and the secular Ba'ath Party members were forced to study the Koran in their weekly party meetings.

In 1994, Saddam issued a decree punishing theft with the traditional Islamic amputation. He banned the public consumption of alcohol and the thriving nightlife in Iraq was curtailed. Saddam allowed increased freedom of action and expression in the mosques, and their following increased. It was now safe to grow a beard. Clerics were made government employees and their salaries increased. Wahhabism, the strict brand of Islam associated with Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda, made inroads in Iraq as well, causing Saddam's son Uday Hussein to complain about its presence in 1994.

It didn't hurt that Wahhabis were viciously anti-Shi'ite after the 1991 Shi'ite uprising pitted that community against the regime. As the party headquarters had once been central in Iraqi politics, the mosque became the center for self-expression and political activism, since all other venues were closed off and any other political opposition was either killed or exiled. Those exiled Iraqi leaders who have returned to the country have found little popular support, unlike the religious clerics who dominate both the Sunni and the Shi'ite communities, and we are now witnessing the results of Saddam's attempts to neutralize Islamic opposition movements in the inability to find a suitable secular leader.

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May 26, 2004



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