Magazine article The Middle East

The Hard Road Ahead: Mariam Shahin Reports from Iraq on the Continuing Tussle between Myriad Factions for Power and, Ultimately, Control of the New Iraq

Magazine article The Middle East

The Hard Road Ahead: Mariam Shahin Reports from Iraq on the Continuing Tussle between Myriad Factions for Power and, Ultimately, Control of the New Iraq

Article excerpt

Iraq, in brief, is in chaos; a mess. It is ruled and run, influenced and swayed, robbed and enriched by scores of diverse interest groups, some masquerading as countries, some as multi-nationals, still others as patriots or men of God. But none are as influential or as potentially dangerous as those masquerading as would-be-leaders.

The men in question at this early stage are all Shi'ite Muslims. What they want is power at any price. All were opponents of the ancient regime, not just the Baathists, but the 500 year old leadership dominated by members of the Sunni Muslim branch of Islam. The presence of the Americans in Iraq is essential to their elevation to power, at least for the time being.

The Shi'a of Iraq are from varied backgrounds. Most are Arabs from the centre and south of the country whose forefathers were converted to Shi'ism some 200 or so years ago. They are tribal and rural, generally poor and often uneducated. Their direct rulers have been either feudal family and clan leaders or the urbane educated Shi'a that since the 1920s have been educated as far afield as England, Germany and the United States. The only nominal Shi'a ever in rule Iraq in modern history was Abdul Kareem Kassem. Born to a Sunni mother and a Shi'a father, he was blacklisted by Washington as being "too pink" (i.e. too liberal) and thus the US backed those who opposed him and had him ousted from power.

Kassem was a member of that distinguished Shi'a group, secular and urbane, Iraqis can only wish they had more of these days. But Kassem is no more. Those that have generally replaced his ilk are clerical types, pro-Iranian Iraqis with at least some familial, and much political, connection to Tehran.

The Iraqi Shi'a that Saddam Hussein was most fond of persecuting were those of Persian descent, many of whom settled in Iraq's holy cities or near holy Shi'a shrines. In the 19th century a rivalry for the hearts and minds of Iraq's southern population took place between Sunni groups and Shi'a dominated Iran. Tim Iranians were successful in bringing the vast majority of Iraq's southern population into the Shi'a fold. But with them came a Persian clerical and merchant class that was later singled out by Saddam's regime as a "sixth" column. As a result thousands of Iraqis of Persian descent were expelled during the Iran-Iraq war under the pretext that they represented the "enemies within".

Regardless of the unfair treatment meted out to this group of people, which in the case of the city of Najaf, represented perhaps up to 20% of the population, many Iraqis continue to view the diverse ethnic group with suspicion, despite widespread inter-marriage and third generation status.

In an Arab world where most people belong to Sunni Islam, it can be difficult for those who do not exactly match that category.


One of the main complaints is that the Shi'a of Iraq have not gained equal footing with the country's dominant Sunni Arabs by their own efforts. If they do so now, it will only be because they have American support, or such is the perception in much of the Arab world. Unlike the Shi'a of Lebanon, who emerged from that country's wars both powerful and influential on their own merit, the Shi'a of Iraq are seen domestically as quislings.

What appears to be their desire to please the US and the fact that they have become powerful in Iraq as a result of America's presence there, has called their legitimacy to rule into question.

Although most Arab leaders, who with few exceptions are Sunni, have good relations with Washington, the Shi'a of Iraq, as a regional minority, are newly expected to be more "loyal than loyal."

Thus far at least, the Iraqi Shi'a have tailed to command anywhere close to the regional respect attained by the religious Shi'a groups of Lebanon.

With the possible exception of one man, most of the Shi'a personalities associated with the existing governing council and "opposition" groups none are perceived neither as wise, credible or balanced in their opinions. …

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