Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Shi'i Crescent: What Fallout for the U.S.?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Shi'i Crescent: What Fallout for the U.S.?

Article excerpt

Discussing "A Shi'i Crescent: What Fallout for the U.S.?", the topic of the Middle East Policy Center's (MEPC) Oct. 14 conference, were Juan Cole, Kenneth Katzman, Karim Sadjadpour, and Ray Takeyh. The 41st in MEPC's series, the conference convened in the U.S. Capitol Building with the aim of fleshing out the dynamics of the Shi'i rise to power in post-invasion Iraq.

Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, opened the conference by commenting on the development of the Iraq's majority Shi'i Muslims from a somewhat provincial group to a much more urban group within the Ba'ath period (1968-2003). Literacy programs initiated by the Ba'ath worked, said Cole, and "Iraqi Shi'i became more like the Iranian ones." With increasing levels of literacy, the ability of Iraqi Shi'i to become absorbed into the world of Shi'i politics also increased, and tribal factors became less important.

Clerics became "the last men standing," Cole said, and mediated between Iraq's government and governed. Rival Shi'i clerics acted as community leaders, with Grand Ayatollah Sistani and Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr the chief antagonists during the 1990s. According to Cole, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussain blew "the lid off of a situation which was underneath already boiling." Suddenly, he explained, the clerical politics of Sistani and al-Sadr combined with the politics of groups such as Al-Dawa and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The electoral success of SCIRI in 2005, Cole noted, was like an Iranian dream from the early 1980s come true.

Katzman, a Middle East affairs specialist at the Congressional Research Service, argued that since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, "U.S. relations with Shi'i Islam...have come full circle." The main "terrorism threat" to the United States during the 1980s, he noted, were Shi'i Islamist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. According to Katzman, the "threat from Iran and Iranian-inspired Shi'i extremism" was so acute that the Reagan and Bush administrations backed Iraq, even though they had a "distaste for Saddam Hussain's regime."

In the aftermath of the Iraq-Iran war, which ended in 1988 with Iraq the military victor, Saddam Hussain "apparently perceived the U.S. would tolerate Iraqi hegemony," said Katzman. …

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