The massive car bomb in Najaf on 29 August 2003, which took the lives of over 90 Iraqis, including the prominent cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, has put renewed focus on the fate of the country’s Shiites. The attack comes in the wake of the attempted killing of other prominent clerics, including Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Saed Al-Tabatab’i al-Hakim, al-Hakim’s uncle. Although it is too soon to assign blame, it is not too soon to assess potential consequences: a heightened sense of insecurity; anger, directed both at the former regime and at the current occupiers; intensified intra-Shiite rivalry; and a growing risk of sectarian conflict as militias loyal to different groups vie for control.
From the moment the Baathist regime fell, Shiites were poised to play a decisive part in shaping Iraq’s future. They constitute over half the population and, for the first time in their nation’s modern history, are in a position to claim a share of power commensurate with their demographic weight. But any certainty ends there. Iraqi Shiites are not monolithic, controlled by a central leadership, generally receptive to radical Islamist conceptions of political power or subservient to a foreign power (i.e., Iran). Instead, Iraqi Shiism is marked by a rich diversity of views and aspirations concerning the occupation, Iraq’s future political system and, most basically, the role of religion in politics. The end of the Baathist regime paved the way for a Shiite reawakening but has left behind an atomised leadership that has yet to coalesce behind any single party or platform. The struggles within the Shiite community will determine whether an organised political force can emerge as its legitimate representative and, if so, which it will be. It would be a serious mistake for the U.S. or others to assume the pre-existence of a Shiite political outlook which, in fact, is being shaped by current events, including the very policies the U.S. and others pursue.
Iraqi Shiism is being influenced by a combination of factors:
Strengthened communitarian ties. Divided along urban/rural, religious/secular, ideological and tribal lines, Iraq’s Shiites traditionally have not thought of themselves principally in religious terms or developed a strong sense of common identity. However, long years of suppression and persecution under Saddam helped forge bonds of sectarian solidarity. Anger at their political marginalisation grew as the Baathist regime exacerbated sectarian divides, Shiites suffered the brunt of the Iran-Iraq War, and the regime did little to repair infrastructure damage both then and after the Gulf War. A Shiite uprising at the end of that latter conflict was brutally crushed by the regime, with thousands killed and disappeared; that and the U.S. failure to back the uprising account for much of Shiite hostility toward and mistrust of the American presence today. During the 1990s, Shiites became increasingly assertive in formulating demands on behalf of the community as a whole and rejecting their marginal status.
Much of this came to the fore in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s ouster when they finally could express themselves freely. From that day on, Shiite symbols began to pervade Iraq’s public space. Barely hours after the regime’s collapse, Shiites carried symbols of their identity: palm leaves, green banners (symbol of noble descendents from the line of Imam Ali) and turba (clay discs made from the soil of Najaf and used for prayer). In the capital and southern cities, entire neighbourhoods, streets, bridges, hospitals and schools have been renamed after revered Shiite martyrs. Portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and of several Shiite figures either killed by the Baathist regime or recently returned from exile replaced those of Saddam Hussein. Walls were dotted with religious graffiti, and religious institutions such as mosques and husayniyas (Shiite gathering places mourning the third Imam, Hussein) became focal points for social interaction, centres of charity and of politics and even storage areas for weapons. This reassertion of identity culminated at the end of April 2003 when over three million Shiites marched on the holy city of Karbala to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a pilgrimage that the former regime had banned. The 29 August attack, while it might exacerbate intra-Shiite divisions, is almost certain to bolster the feeling that Iraqi Shiism, under assault, must assert and defend itself.
Strengthened Shiite religious activism. Religiously-inspired Shiite activism has long been a feature of Iraq’s political landscape, though it has had to contend with a powerful apolitical tradition among the traditional clergy. The vacuum in authority and the absence of a clear political compass following the fall of the Baathist regime bolstered the position of the more radical religiously-motivated Shiites as they were best able to step in where the occupation fell short. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the virtual absence of an effective central authority in a society in which 60 per cent of the population relied on the state for its daily bread prompted many who might not otherwise have done so to turn to the clergy for help. Shiite activists provided welfare services, health care and law and order. Without an effective police force, vigilantes designated by religious leaders patrolled the streets and administered hospitals and universities.
In short, the provision of social services gave religious groups, if not necessarily a loyal constituency, at least a receptive audience for their claim to legitimacy. In turn, the fact that they have been effective in providing for society gave them a license to begin to shape it. Women are subjected to a strict Islamic dress code and, increasingly, to gender segregation in public arenas.
Heightened religious polarisation. The selection by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) of the Interim Governing Council marked an important political turning point. The presence of a Shiite majority in the Interim Governing Council and the appointed Iraqi cabinet may well have allayed the immediate concerns of many Shiites. But there are longer-term consequences. For the first time in its modern history, sectarian and ethnic identity has been elevated to the rank of primary organising political principle. ICG has warned of the precedent-setting risks involved; unfortunately, subsequent developments have only added reason for concern. The more Iraqis feel that political representation will be established on the basis of their religious or ethnic affiliation, the more they are likely to join political parties that are built along those lines. The net effect is to weaken secular Iraqis – Shiites included, but also Sunni Arabs – and all who aspire to a different kind of political organisation that would mitigate rather than exacerbate sectarian or ethnic divisions.
Growing Nationalism. Iraqi Shiites for the most part welcomed the ouster of the Baathist regime that had long oppressed them. By most accounts, they were prepared to give the occupying powers a grace period despite lingering suspicion about U.S. motives and past behaviour. Among many Shiites, a sense of relief at the U.S.-led invasion remains. But the failure of the occupation forces to safeguard law and order, ensure adequate welfare and offer the Iraqi people a genuine sense of ownership in the political process or a clear path toward self-government have combined to intensify feelings of nationalism and of opposition to the U.S. Even Shiite leaders initially most inclined to acquiesce in the occupation have been forced to oppose it in increasingly strong language. The less the Iraqi people have a feeling they are getting security, welfare and their country back, the more this trend is likely to grow. Initial reactions following the 29 August car bomb were telling: although many blamed Baathist remnants, anger was also directed at the U.S., faulted both for failing to ensure security and for preventing Iraqis from doing it themselves. The accusation was used as a basis for calls for the U.S. to hand over more control over security matters to the Interim Governing Council and newly-established Interior Ministry, and for the right to set up a militia that would protect the Shiite religious leadership and the shrine of the Imam Ali in Najaf.
Increased power for locally-based groups. During the years of Baathist repression, many Shiite political organisations took refuge in Iran, Syria or Europe. For obvious reasons, they became the more vocal Shiite groups. With the fall of the regime, the political centre of gravity moved back to Iraq. Many exiles have returned and are seeking to build a domestic following. But those who remained in Iraq, such as the movement of Moqtada al-Sadr, were able to gain central prominence.
As a result of these trends, Iraqi Shiism’s rich diversity so far has been overshadowed by competition between three principal groups: the traditional clerical establishment, based in Najaf; the formerly Teheran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), previously led by Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, and now by his brother, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim; and the home-grown, radical and populist movement of Moqtada al-Sadr, a young cleric who inherited his father’s vast network of charities, schools and mosques as well as his significant popular following. Secular Shiites, meanwhile, have found themselves marginalised and without clear leadership.
This briefing paper describes the state of Iraqi Shiism and the multitude of political and religious organisations that are seeking to give it voice.
Baghdad/Brussels, 9 September 2003