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For Iraq's Shiites, Faith Knows No Borders
Youssef M. Ibrahim - The New York Times - Fri 25th, June 2004
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates While Iraq's Sunni Muslims continue their insurgency and the Kurds threaten to secede, America at least seems to have reached an accord with the country's largest group, the Shiites. The most respected religious figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has approved of the Shiite-led transition government set to take over in Baghdad next week, and the militias loyal to the rebel cleric Moktada al-Sadr have peacefully abandoned their occupation of the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf.

It would be a mistake, however, to consider the Shiites a problem solved. Rather, Bush administration strategists should undertake an in-depth analysis of the entire Shiite phenomenon, which since the Iranian revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power in Iran in 1979 has repeatedly upset America's plans in the Persian Gulf. It is vital that Washington understand that it cannot consider the Shiites of Iraq to be an independent, national body. Shiism, forged during more than 1,500 years of persecution at the hands of the Islamic world's Sunnis, is a phenomenon that transcends borders and domestic politics.

Iran, with its 65 million Shiites, its powerful army and its ancient civilization, is the de facto master of the Persian Gulf. Tehran is clearly pleased that Iraq's 15 million Shiites will more or less control their country eventually. In Lebanon, with one million Shiites, the well-armed Hezbollah militia has proved itself a most effective military-social-political group, which even forced both American and Israeli armed forces from the country. There are 400,000 Shiites in Bahrain and several million more in pockets from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia. Just as important, there are communities of sophisticated and shrewd Shiite merchants spread all over the Persian Gulf region, commanding billions of dollars in wealth and a fierce sense of solidarity with their brethren.

And that is the big point: Shiites stick together. Their formidable official religious establishment, or Hawza, acts as one entity, even though its members may be in Najaf, in Qom in Iran (the other major center of learning), or any other place with substantial numbers of Shiites. Unlike, say, the Vatican, the Hawza is not an organized theocracy with clear hierarchies and chains of authority. Rather, it is bound by fervor, consensus and the utter devotion of its leaders and followers. This makes it a tricky institution to predict.

Shiite religious leaders are not handed their titles as a pope may appoint Roman Catholic bishop. Rather, a cleric rises in status depending on how many followers believe in his interpretations, be they religious or political. This is called ijtihad, which can be roughly translated as "intellectual initiative." Shiism encourages debate and questioning. The rewards for clerics who thrive at ijtihad are an increase in followers and financial donations. Religious titles like ayatollah are thus conferred by the faithful to the cleric, in recognition of scholarship, leadership, wisdom and courage.

Ayatollah Khomeini was the perfect example of how one can succeed in this system. When he led the Iranian revolution in 1979, he was not viewed as the most learned among the grand ayatollahs (although, having written the equivalent of 15 doctoral dissertations, he was quite an authority). But he had other qualities a personal magnetism and undaunted conviction that attracted the masses, and before his death they elevated him to ayatollah al uzma, the highest rank, and gave him the lofty title of naeb al imam, or "deputy of the imam."

This helps explain why the simple-minded American formula of dividing Iraq's Shiites into good guys (followers of Grand Ayatollah Sistani) and hoodlums (followers of Mr. Sadr) is tragically mistaken. Mr. Sadr is not just a firebrand or militant. He has religious and political qualities that have given him a legitimate following. More important, his father was the most revered Shiite figure in Iraq during the Baathist regime and was assassinated by Saddam Hussein's goons in 1999.

Martyrdom is a powerful force in Shiism: the sect was born of defeat in 661, when the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law Ali was killed and Sunnism became the dominant force in Islam. Thus his family history confers considerable legitimacy on Mr. Sadr. Any efforts by the Americans or the new Iraqi government to marginalize or imprison him would cause reverberations from Iran to Lebanon to Pakistan. Remember that Iran shares hundreds of miles of open borders with Iraq. Inside Iraq there are thousands of armed and trained Shiite militia fighters taking their signals from Iran. The last thing we want is battle within Shiism, because the war would go well beyond Iraq itself.

There is little question that Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who served his exile in Iran, is aware of all this. While Mr. Sadr eventually succumbed to his calls and pulled his forces out of Karbala and Najaf, the older man will no doubt carefully consider Mr. Sadr's popularity before putting pressure on him in the future. The Americans' assumption that they have the grand ayatollah in their pocket could not be more misguided. He will do what is good for Shiites, not America. And besides, the Hawza is much larger than one man.

My modest advice to American authorities is not to get in the way if Mr. Sadr manages to carve a role for himself in a democratic Iraq. Any hopes for a secular Iraq should also be abandoned the Shiites will dominate by force of numbers. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, or a sign that they will be pawns of Iran. But dealing with it requires some knowledge and and a sense of history that the Bush administration's neoconservatives haven't shown much inclination to acquire. They started a war in a country they didn't understand, and over the last year they have paid a heavy price. On June 30 the political dynamic will change unalterably as the Shiites move slowly, deftly and surely to consolidate power. Let's hope that this time Washington takes the time to gain some understanding.

Youssef M. Ibrahim, a former Middle East correspondent for The Times, is a risk consultant to energy and investment companies.
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