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Shi’a rising in Iraq

Anwar Rizvi
9 February 2005

The fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003 provided the Shi’a Muslims of Iraq with perhaps a best-ever opportunity to gain their rightful place in what would hopefully be a free and democratic Iraq. Could the national election of 30 January 2005 bring this opportunity close to fulfilment?

If so, it will have been a long, hard road for the “followers of Ali” – a majority of around 60% in the Iraqi population, but a much smaller minority across a Muslim world where the Sunni variant of Islam is dominant. In the 1920s, following the birth of modern Iraq and the installation of the Hashemite monarchy, a Shi’a delegation met prime minister Abd el-Rahman an-Naqib. The delegation wished to raise their concerns over the new Iraqi constitution that they deemed to be discriminatory against the Shi’a. Naqib’s reply was blunt: “I am the governor of this land – so what do you (Shi’a) have to do with it?”

These words express the dilemma faced by Iraqi Shi’a for generations – ever excluded from centres of power and influence, and brutally suppressed when they have tried to assert themselves.

openDemocracy’s regular features on Iraq, many of them gathered in our “Iraqi voices” debate, include articles and discussions among Iraqis about the best way forward for their country:

“Iraq in the balance” (June 2004)

Zaid Al-Ali, “Iraq’s dangerous elections” (December 2004)

“Our Election” (January 2005)

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The oppression of the Shi’a reached a crescendo under Saddam’s Ba’athist (and Sunni-dominated) regime, which saw them and the Shi’a seminaries of Najaf (the Hawza) as the “enemy within”. The popular uprising that followed Saddam’s defeat in the Gulf war of 1991 was mercilessly crushed, and the 1991-2003 period was perhaps the darkest chapter in Iraqi Shi’a history.

One effect of this bitter historical experience is to have deprived Iraqi Shi’a of the leadership needed to achieve political and social parity in their own country. An unofficial but actively pursued “apartheid” policy effectively barred the Shi’a from the civil service, the armed forces and access to higher education. This lack of opportunity stunted the growth of a middle class that might have provided political leadership, and elements of the small middle class that did emerge in the 1950s-1960s chose to join the Ba’ath or go into exile – in either case prolonging the agony of their fellow-Shi’a.

From election to constitution

In the absence of political channels of advancement, the Shi’a religious hierarchy has been – despite its labyrinthine and competitive internal structure – the focus of the community’s social loyalties and aspirations. This was vividly evident in the post-Saddam political vacuum. After two prominent leadership candidates, Sayyid Abdul Majeed al-Khoei and Sayyid Baqir al-Hakim, were eliminated in tragic circumstances, the scholar (and Grand Ayatollah) Ali al-Sistani became the most influential Shi’a figure. The young militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr retains a loyal following, but his abortive attempt to take control of Najaf in August 2004 left him deeply unpopular with the Shi’a majority.

Al-Sistani’s many detractors deride him as a stooge of the west, yet it is arguable that his authority has helped guide the Shi’a through the turbulent post-2003 period: without it, Iraq might have descended even further into anarchy and bloodshed, and the chance to achieve political stability and national unity might have disappeared. Despite many attacks by extremists on Shi’a lives and properties, including al-Sistani’s own aides, he has constantly advised against retaliation. Al-Sistani seems to understand that salvation for the Shi’a lies in engaging fully in the democratic process, and this in turn requires a pragmatic willingness to compromise in the interest of all Iraqis.

But his biggest achievement so far – all the more striking for this remote, enigmatic figure – was to bring together the many disparate Shi’a groups in the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) to contest the 30 January election to the proposed national assembly. The strategy seems to have paid off in immediate political terms: as Iraqis wait for the official results to be announced, the UIA is estimated to have received around 51% of the vote, as against 24% for Kurdish parties and 14% for the Iraqi List headed by current prime minister, Iyad Allawi.

The UIA’s biggest party is the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) whose spokesman in Baghdad, Haitham al-Hussaini, was cautiously optimistic when I spoke to him. He described the elections as a “historical event” and a “victory for all Iraqis”, and stressed that his party was seeking to reach out to all Iraqi citizens and work with every group represented in the assembly. He also said that Sciri’s candidate for the premiership, Adel Abdel-Mehdi, works together with political opponents in the present administration in his capacity as finance minister, and would do so again in the interest of Iraq and its people.

Jafar Bassam, London-based spokesman for Ayatollah Sistani’s own Imam Ali Foundation told me that although the UIA has al-Sistani’s blessings, al-Sistani himself and the organisations he represented would remain outside of politics. But would al-Sistani have any influence on the writing of the new Iraqi constitution? In writing the document, the assembly will take into account the wishes of all Iraqis, Jafar Bassam said. But he made clear that the Grand Ayatollah will have an opinion – and that if he was unhappy with any aspect of the constitution he would let it be known.

In this answer lies a crucial key to the future of democracy in Iraq. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani exerts more influence over the Iraqi Shi’a than either political ideology or armed insurgency. By remaining “apolitical” during the tumultuous twenty-two months since the ending of the Saddam Hussein regime, he has actually enhanced his reputation.

If this delicate positioning and judgment is sustained, the city of Najaf may become in the next few months a centre of pilgrimage not just for devout Shi’a but for Iraqi politicians who wish to see a trouble-free transition from a blood-soaked past to a peaceful, democratic future.

If it is not, or if insurgent violence manages to obliterate the institutions and personnel of the new Iraq, the country could be divided along sectarian and ethnic lines with terrible consequences for Iraqi Shi’a and Sunni alike.

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