Iraq’s Forgotten Majority

Sunni Arabs, including Saddam Hussein and most Iraqis in the American-backed opposition, account for no more than 16 percent of the Iraqi population; they dominate central Iraq as far south as Baghdad. Ethnic Kurds, who are also Sunni Muslims, make up about 20 percent of Iraq’s population and are concentrated in the mountainous north. But nearly two-thirds of Iraqis are Shiite Muslims, and they populate the slums of Baghdad as well as the south of Iraq. Unlike Kurds and others in the northern no-flight zone, who have received a proportionate share of Iraqi revenues under the United Nations-administered oil-for-food program, Iraqis in the vast southern zone have suffered greatly from a decade of sanctions. Saddam Hussein, of course, is entirely willing to let them suffer.

Shiite Muslims would be the largest voting bloc in any democratic Iraq. This is why the Bush administration must find a way to integrate them into its Iraq planning, something it has so far failed to do. It is also a principal reason why Saddam Hussein has suppressed Shiism. In recent years Saddam Hussein has hand-picked one Shiite cleric after another to lead the Shiite community, only to see each one defy him — and be murdered quickly thereafter. In a shooting spree beginning in 1998, one top Iraqi Shiite cleric after another was gunned down. Iraq’s last grand ayatollah, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, was murdered with his two sons on a road near Najaf. Another powerful cleric, Hussain Bahr al-Uloom, died under mysterious circumstances last year.

It is Shiites who have most consistently fought Saddam Hussein since 1991, when Shiite clerics called for an uprising. “The Shia uprising in the south was far more dangerous than the Kurdish insurgency in the north,” one eyewitness later reported to the State Department. Although the small and disastrous northern uprising in 1996 had no exact counterpart in the south, a Shiite group attacked Mr. Hussein’s eldest son, Uday, that year and crippled him. In 1998 Shiite rebels attacked Mr. Hussein’s second in command, Izzat Ibrahim.

American officials have long been reluctant to work with Iraqi Shiites out of fear that they might be too close to Iran, where the Shiite faith predominates. But Iraqi and Iranian Shiites are not as close as it might seem. The Iraqis are Arabs and the Iranians are Persian. They also, with some exceptions, follow very distinct and sometimes hostile forms of Shiism: Akhbari in Iraq, Usuli in Iran. Akhbari Shiism has never promoted political rule, while the Usuli school produced the politically active caste of priests that is a distinctive feature of Iranian Shiism.

Iraqi Shiites demonstrated their independence from Iranian Shiites in 1980 after Iraq invaded Iran. A Central Intelligence Agency report noted in 1991 that Iraq’s Shiites “rejected Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini’s concept of velayat-e faqui (political rule by a supreme religious leader) and remained loyal to Baghdad during the eight-year war with Iran.”

Despite a lack of political connection, Iraq’s most important Shiite clerics survive in exile in Iran today. Only in August did Bush administration officials meet with the brother of Shiite leader Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, head of the influential Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is based in Tehran. This is only a small step toward forming a representative anti-Hussein coalition.

For the most part, the Bush administration continues to work with Sunni groups. Among the Iraqi opposition, the State Department is closer to the Iraqi National Accord, while the Defense Department is closer to the Iraqi National Congress. Both groups are dominated by Sunni Arabs (although the president of the congress, Ahmad Chalabi, has a Shiite mother). The Iraqi National Congress is far more active in Washington and another congress leader, al-Sharif Ali Bin al-Hussein, in August announced his proposal to restore the Iraqi monarchy, which was installed by Britain in 1921 and lasted just 37 years. The Sunni Arab-led kingdom was never popular with either the Shiite majority or the Kurds.

The Bush administration can gain political credibility for its actions on Iraq only by engaging all groups there. Iraqi Shiites in exile in London and Tehran are seeking reassurances that, after Saddam Hussein, they would for the first time enjoy their fair share of power. Meanwhile, leaders of the Kurdish minority recently told American journalists that a unified, representative Iraq is what they want. Any viable outcome must also address the concerns of Iraq’s neighbors, particularly Turkey and Iran.

One possibility for a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq is a decentralized state with considerable regional autonomy, including the division of oil revenues to ensure adequate budgets for provincial development. This could be the only way to keep the nation together. But getting there would require talking directly to leaders of all three population groups. No plan will work that does not take into account the nearly two-thirds of Iraqis who are Shiites.

Frank Smyth has written frequently on Iraq.

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