In pilgrims' zeal, Iraq majority's wish for role seen
By Geneive Abdo, Globe Correspondent, 4/23/03
WASHINGTON -- The Shi'ite pilgrimage to the Iraqi holy city of Karbala that ended yesterday was more than an outpouring of religious sentiment bottled up for 25 years. It was also a display of political power that served notice to the US government that Iraq's Shi'ite majority intends to play a critical role in the postwar government, analysts say. And if Iraq's Shi'ites have their way, the new Iraqi state will be far more Islamic than the Bush administration had anticipated when it announced its intention to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
"The Shi'ites are not going to become Thomas Jefferson liberals; that's not their tradition," said Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan. "The aftermath of the war was not planned at all. The US created a vacuum, and radical Shi'ites are filling this vacuum."
The Bush administration appears to have been alarmed by the raw display of Shi'ite power. Yesterday's turnout in Karbala, which some estimate as high as 1 million, demonstrated the Shi'ite clerics' ability to mobilize supporters in the chaos of postwar Iraq. Pilgrims to Karbala, scene of an historic battle 14 centuries ago that helped define Shi'ite dissent in the Islamic world, were fed, watered, and provided with an impressive array of banners and posters in support of their faith.
With Iraqi society in tatters, the clergymen nonetheless managed to draw upon their traditional authority and stature to bring about the display of Shi'ite solidarity. No other major group vying for power -- not the Kurds, nor the US-backed Iraqi exiles, nor the Sunni Arabs of the traditional elite -- could dream of organizing in such great numbers, Islamic specialists said.
"There are a lot of secular Shi'ites in Iraq, but they have no organization," Cole said. "Under Saddam they couldn't organize."
But he said that "more theo cratic organizations were under Iran's influence, and they kept things going inside Iraq."
Several factors contribute to the Shi'ites' political strength.
A young radical sect, which follows the son of an influential ayatollah killed by Hussein's regime, had been organizing underground for several years. It was these Shi'ite radicals, say specialists, who murdered the cleric Abdul Majid Khoei two weeks ago in Najaf. The specialists said that the sect carried out the murder because Khoei, who had lived in exile in London and had returned to Iraq earlier this month, was handpicked by the United States and Britain to play a leading role in a new Iraq. The sect opposes any foreign influence over the oil-rich country.
The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, another Shi'ite group that was in exile in Iran for more than a decade, maintained a foothold inside Iraq, even after Hussein crushed a massive Shi'ite uprising in 1991.
Now, with continued financial backing from some clerical factions in Iran, the group has united with its forces inside Iraq. One of the organizers who called for the massive pilgrimage to Karbala was Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, who had been in exile in Iran.
"Hakim was one of the major voices calling for this event, and the massive turnout is an indication of his growing influence," said Paul Sullivan, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington.
"Hakim will continue to look to Iran for support," said Sullivan, who is head of the university's Regional Security Study for North Africa and the Levant. He added that his comments were his own views, not those of the university.
Hakim's group is now the dominant power in the Iraqi towns of Kut and Badra, according to Iraq watchers. The takeover of these towns has been reported in several Arabic newspapers.
In an interview earlier this month in the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram, Hakim offered some insight into his vision for a future Iraqi government.
"I strongly believe that any future government should uphold the religious values of the Iraqi people, which are rooted in Islam," he said. "It has to be emphasized that Islam is the official religion of the state and the Sharia [Islamic law] is the main source of legislation."
Specialists say that Iran is not only certain to have some religious influence among Iraq's Shiites, but will also seek to have a political influence in its neighbor. President Mohammad Khatami of Iran said recently that any US-imposed government in Iraq would be illegitimate.
Now that US forces control Karbala, the holy city could become a metaphor for a renewed Shi'ite uprising, this one against the United States, which is seen by many Shi'ites and Iraqis in general as a foreign invader.
"The `battle of Karbala,' until March and April 2003, referred only to a civil war among Muslims in the year 685 when the grandson of the prophet Mohammed was killed," said Hamid Dabashi, an Islamic scholar at Columbia University. "But now and for generations to come the Karbala syndrome will have far more immediate resonance."