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IRAQ: Shiites

Author: Sharon Otterman
September 2, 2003

Will Shiites control the new Iraq?

Most experts are certain that Iraqi Shiites, who make up some 60 percent of Iraq's population, will play a leading role in the reconstituted country. How large a role is up in the air, because the shape of the new Iraqi government has yet to emerge and long-held rivalries among various Shiite branches and between Shiites and other Iraqis--Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and others--have just begun to play out.

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Do Iraqi Shiites want to impose an Islamic government?

Some do. But Iraqi Shiites are not a monolithic force, Iraq experts say. Many Iraqi Shiites are secularists. They follow a variety of competing religious leaders who preach a range of views toward separation of religion and state. Shiites are also divided by region, class, tribal affiliation, and ethnicity. Most Shiites are Arabs, but some Kurds, Turkomen, and others are also adherents.

What's the main difference between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam?

The two groups differ over leadership of the Muslim community. Shiites, who account for 10 percent to 20 percent of the world's Muslims, believe Islam's leader should be a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. Sunnis say leaders should be chosen through consensus. Shiites revere Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law, who was killed while serving as the top leader, or Caliph, of Islam in the 7th century. His tomb is in Najaf, Iraq's holiest Shiite city.

Which group has traditionally held power in Iraq?

The Sunnis have dominated Iraq's politics since the victorious Western nations created Iraq at the end of World War I. Saddam Hussein's government was led by Sunnis, particularly those from his Tikriti clan; Shiites were often brutally repressed. In addition to Iraq, Shiites are in the majority in Lebanon and Bahrain. Shiism is the state religion in Iran.

What are the main religious differences among Iraq's Shiites?

Iraq experts say there are differences in religious philosophy, which are commonly reflected through adherence to various religious leaders, or ayatollahs, both living and dead. One key point of disagreement: those who believe religion and government should remain in separate spheres, and those who believe that the state should be ruled by Islamic clerics according to religious principles.

What Shiite leaders are maneuvering for influence?

In the months since the fall of Saddam's government, at least three Shiite religious leaders from highly respected religious families have vied for the allegiance of Iraqi Shiites. The al-Sadr, al-Khoei, and al-Hakim families each claim to be directly descended from the Prophet Mohammed and have produced top Islamic scholars for generations. Each family also suffered greatly at the hands of Saddam's regime, when politically motivated assassinations of Shiite clerics were common. A fourth leader, the Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali al-Sestani, is the senior ranking Shiite cleric in Iraq. But so far, he has taken a hands-off approach to the emerging political infighting.

Are any of the major Shiite religious leaders pro-American?

Abdel Majid Al-Khoei, a exiled Iraq cleric willing to cooperate publicly with America, was murdered in Najaf April 10 shortly after his return to Iraq. Ayatollah al-Hakim, was killed August 29 in the same holy city. Hakim had opposed the occupation, but preached patience and counseled his followers not to use violence against the occupiers. The attitude of the remaining leaders appears to range from wariness about U.S. intentions to virulent opposition. The most important leader in the Sadr family, for example, is stridently anti-American and favors the imposition of an Islamic government in Iraq.

Could the August murder of Ayatollah al-Hakim have been motivated by religious infighting?

It is still unclear who is responsible for the massive car bombing that killed Hakim and at least 80 others outside the holy shrine of Ali on August 29. But many Iraq experts say they do not believe rival Shiite factions would strike so aggressively, especially so near one of their religion's holiest sites. Suspects in the Najaf bombing include Saddam loyalists and foreign Islamic terrorists seeking to undermine the U.S. occupation.

What did Hakim believe?

Ayatollah al-Hakim, 64, wanted some form of Islamic government for Iraq, but believed that it could emerge through the democratic process, says Juan Cole, an expert in Iraqi history at the University of Michigan. While he opposed the U.S.-led occupation, he counseled patience for his followers and did not appear to support violence against coalition forces.

Did Hakim have ties to Iran?

Yes. Hakim had lived in exile in Iran since the 1980's. While there, he founded a political organization, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) dedicated to Saddam's overthrow. He had close ties with Iranian leaders--his group's militia, the 5,000-to-10,000-member Badr Brigades, was trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. But he also cooperated with the Americans. His group participated in major U.S.-sponsored conferences of Iraqi opposition groups before the recent war and qualified for funding under the 1998 U.S. Iraq Liberation Act. His brother, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, joined the U.S.-sponsored Iraqi Governing Council, helping to shore up the Council's legitimacy among Shiites.

How much support did Hakim have?

A great deal. More than 300,000 supporters turned out for his funeral. Iraq experts say his death will have major ramifications within the Shiite community, and some argue it will reduce Shiite tolerance for the occupation. In an impassioned funeral speech, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim placed the bulk of the blame for his brother's death on the U.S.-led occupiers and called for their withdrawal. “The occupation force is primarily responsible for the pure blood that was spilt in holy Al-Najaf, the blood of al-Hakim and the faithful group that was present near the mosque,” he said. “Iraq must not remain occupied and the occupation must leave so that we can build Iraq as God wants us to do.”

Why are the Shiite religious leaders wary of America?

Experts say U.S. support for Israel angers many Arabs, including Shiites, as does its backing for leaders such as Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, and Saudi Arabia's al- Saud monarchy. In addition, there is a strong anti-imperialist and dissident strain among the Shiites. In large part, experts say, Shiites want to rule themselves, not be ruled by foreign, Christian occupiers.

How are Iraqi Shiite leaders chosen?

They rise by consensus through the ranks, from the level of prayer leader to ayatollah, a title awarded to those who have exhibited a great scholarly mastery of Islamic law and jurisprudence and have attracted many followers. The apex of the hierarchy is the Marja'iyyah, the title given to the top Shiite religious leader. Most of the senior clerics of the four most influential families have served as Maraji' sometime in the past century. The seat of the Marja'iyyah has usually been in Najaf, and sometimes in the holy city of Qum in Iran.

What does Marja'iyyah al-Sestani believe?

Scholars say the Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali al-Sestani, 73, espouses what is known as a quietist approach to Islam, preaching that religion should hold itself aloof from the state and shun involvement in worldly affairs. He appears to be continuing in this tradition. Early in the war, he advised Shiites not to get involved on either side in the conflict between the United States and Saddam's regime. Some U.S. supporters interpreted that as an endorsement of the American campaign. Sestani was appointed after the 1999 killing of another revered ayatollah, Muhammed al-Sadr.

How large is his following?

Most Iraqi Shiites are still thought to consider Sestani the highest ranking member of Iraq's clergy, experts say. But because Sestani has shown little interest in running political affairs, a struggle over who will exercise overt political authority has erupted. Already, three clerics have been killed in Najaf. Sestani has reportedly tried to stay out of the fray by withdrawing into his Najaf home and refusing to see visitors.

Who was the first major Shiite cleric to be killed this year in Najaf?

The pro-American Shiite, Abdel Majid al-Khoei. A moderate who had been living in London, Khoei entered Najaf on April 5 with U.S. Special Forces. In the following days, he met with Sestani's son, then on April 10 went to Ali's tomb, apparently to make peace with a cleric tied to Saddam's regime, Haidar al-Refaei. Both men were murdered when a fight broke out, apparently over who should lead Iraq's Shiites.

What did Khoei believe?

Experts say he had supported a new Iraqi democracy that would provide justice to Shiites and other Iraqis but not be ruled by religious extremism. His father, also a moderate, was the top Islamic cleric in Iraq until his death in 1992. While in exile, Khoei was an occasional dinner guest at British Prime Minister Tony Blair's house and was a U.S. State Department favorite. Observers say he represented the United States' best hope for a moderate Shiite movement in Iraq.

Why was he killed?

There are many differing accounts. Most observers seem to agree that Khoei tried to exert too much authority too quickly, which angered many Muslims in Najaf, especially supporters of another rising Shiite leader, Muqtada al-Sadr. There have reportedly been arrests in the case, but the identity of those being held has not been made public.

Who is Muqtada al-Sadr?

He is the 30-year-old son of Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, a Shiite ayatollah who, with two other sons, was murdered by Saddam's regime in 1999. Pro-U.S. observers say the young cleric, who is still a junior member of the clergy, is among the most worrying of the ascendant Shiites forces in Iraq. He has made stridently anti-U.S. statements in sermons and has apparently already organized his own militia group, the Jammat-i-Sadr-Than. Some of his popularity springs from lingering devotion to his father; the Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad has reportedly been renamed from Saddam City to Sadr City to honor the senior aytollah.

Is Sadr trying to remove Sestani?

Perhaps. Fifty fighters tied to Sadr reportedly besieged the senior cleric in his home for four days after the murder of Khoei and demanded that Sestani step down and leave Iraq. Sestani called a number of tribal leaders to his aid and, after a stand-off, the siege was lifted. Sadr's supporters are also suspect in the killings of Khoei and Hakim; however, no evidence of their involvement has yet come to light.

Have any secular Shiite leaders emerged?

One potential leader is Ahmad Chalabi, a secular Shiite exile who now sits on the Governing Council. Favored by the Pentagon as a potential interim leader of Iraq in the lead-up to the war, his popularity within Iraq appears limited. His reputation in Washington has also been cast into doubt because much of the information he provided regarding Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programs has proved incorrect.

How important are tribal and clan ties among the Shiites?

It depends. Scholars say that in some places, especially major cities, there are many Shiites who no longer define themselves as members of one clan or another. These include many of the Shiite scientists, engineers, teachers, and bureaucrats who worked in Saddam's regime. In other areas, tribal and clan ties that date back centuries are still important forms of self-identification. In addition, a form of rough justice, based on retribution and revenge killings between clans, is still sometimes practiced.

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