Imagining the Iraqi Future: A Survey of Recent Articles

The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Imagining the Iraqi Future: A Survey of Recent Articles


It would be nice if the United States and its coalition partners in Iraq could believe that subduing the last of Saddam Hussein's holdouts would guarantee a belier future for the country, but everybody knows better. Observers looking down the road warn of significant new dangers ahead.

"In eliminating the Baath regime and eliminating constraints on Iraqi Islamism," writes Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, in Boston Review (Oct.-Nov. 2003), "the United States has unleashed a new political force in the Gulf: not the upsurge of civic organization and democratic sentiment fantasized by American neoconservatives, but the aspirations of Iraqi Shiites to build an Islamic republic."

Iraq's 14 million Shiites (who make up about 60 percent of the country's population) were "radicalized and brutalized" over the decades, Cole notes, first by "the Baath crackdown on Shiite political activity in the late 1970s and 1980s, [then by] the crushing of the 1991 uprising and subsequent persecution of and even genocide against Shiites in the South." (The United States encouraged the uprising against Saddam in the wake of the Gulf War, then held back when it happened, causing the Shiites to feel betrayed.)

Saddam's terror against them enhanced the appeal of the ideas of Iran's Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, who advocated Islamic theocracy. Iraq's al-Da'wa Party, the Tehran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the Sadr movement, now led by youthful militant Muqtada al-Sadr, all favor an Islamic republic, and the latter two groups endorse the idea of clerical rule.

"The religious groups constitute only one section of the Shiite population, perhaps a third or more, but they are well organized and armed," Cole observes in another article, which appears in The Middle East Journal (Autumn 2003).

Iraq's Shiites occupy "a number of distinct social niches," according to Cole. More than two million live in the slums of East Baghdad, the former "Saddam City," now called "Sadr City," after Muqtada's father, who was assassinated in 1999 by Saddam's agents. Shiites also predominate in Iraq's second largest city, Basra, which has a population of 1.3 million. The Shiites there are said to be "more cosmopolitan and secular" than elsewhere, but hard-liners pressed even Christian women in Basra to wear the veil outdoors last summer.

Another 4.5 million people, mostly Shiites, many of them merchants and shopkeepers, live in medium-sized towns in the south, including the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala. "The clerics of Najaf in particular enjoy great prestige in Iraq and throughout the Shiite world," says Cole.

Finally, a large minority of Iraqi Shiites live in the countryside, where they practice a "folk Shiism at variance with the more scholastic and bookish Shiism of the seminary cities."

U.S. policymakers had known of the great moral authority of Najaf's senior Grand Ayatollah All Sistani, a quietist who generally stayed out of politics and rejected the idea of clerical rule. But the Americans, according to Cole, were "ignorant of the Sadr movement, the main indigenous Shiite force." When the Baathist regime fell, "Shiite militias seemed suddenly to emerge and take control of many urban areas in the south of the country." Made up mainly of impoverished urban youths, the Sadr movement is "highly puritanical and xenophobic." Its leader, Muqtada, has taken "a rejectionist but nonviolent stance" toward the U.S. occupation.

It's unclear how powerful such leaders may become. Yitzhak Nakash, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Brandeis University, argues in Foreign Affairs (July-Aug. …

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