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The Shi'ite Wildcard

Shi'ite Muslims have been a wild card in the Middle East for the United States for decades. Washington doesn't understand them at all.

Shi'ites have been a huge thorn in America's side, whether seen as hostage takers in the Iranian Revolution, dissident fighters in the Afghan conflict, rebels in Southern Lebanon, genteel dictators in Syria or revolutionaries in Eastern Arabia. Washington has responded to what it sees as a disorderly population by trying to ignore, repress or contain the Shi'a whenever possible.

However, they cannot and will not be ignored in Iraq, and they are once again proving to be the spoiler of all of Washington's plans for the conquest of that nation.

The Shi'ites have disappointed U.S. military commanders in southern Iraq, who expected them to greet U.S. and British troops as liberators, then rise up and support the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein government. This idea, promulgated by Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and other architects of the war, was astonishingly foolish.

Shi'a Muslims make up about 11 percent of the world's Islamic population. But they have a huge impact on the Central Middle East, because they are the majority or near majority in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Azerbaijan and Yemen. Shi'ite Muslims make up 60 percent of the Iraqi population. In a post-war Iraq with true democratic institutions, they would undoubtedly establish a dominant leadership role.

Part of their lack of support for the United States arises from the cavalier statements coming from the White House about what the Shi'ites are likely to do or not do. Mostly, however, they don't believe that Washington will ever let them govern the country.

The Shi'ites have a large set of scores to settle with the United States. During the first Gulf War in 1991, Americans did damage to many Shi'ite shrines in the south. Then President George Herbert Walker Bush urged them to rise up and overthrow Saddam Hussein. They obliged, and essentially "liberated" the entire south. But the United States became alarmed at their success, fearing that their strength might lead to Saddam's overthrow and a Shi'ite regime that would ally with Iran.

The Americans pulled out, leaving Saddam in power, and stood on the sidelines while the Iraqi government slaughtered the Shi'a rebels. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a recent press conference tried to place all of the blame for this debacle on Saddam Hussein. The Shi'a know much better. They had no illusions about Saddam then, or now, but they see the United States today as betrayers. That's considered worse than enemies in the Middle East, where loyalty is all.

Consequently, today the Shi'a are not going to support the United States if they have no assurance from Washington that they will have a significant stake in a new government. Like most Iraqis, they may oppose Saddam, but they don't want American rule, either.

The United States has, for the past 10 years, viewed Shi'a rule as the most undesirable outcome of the war. The fear is that a Shi'ite regime in Iraq would become a surrogate, or at least a strong ally, of the religious regime in Iran, which Washington views as an enemy of the United States.

With their superficial knowledge of the dynamics of Shi'ism, American officials make the mistake of seeing the Shi'a community as a monolith. This is perhaps understandable, given the long difficulties between Washington and Tehran, but it is a conceptual error.

Unlike in Sunni Islam, Shi'a Islam has no fixed legal code. A Shi'ite believer attaches him or herself to a revered religious scholar -- an Ayatollah. Believers are attracted to his philosophy and follow his lead in religious matters.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was able to lead the Iranian revolution because the majority of Iranians had acknowledged him as their spiritual leader.

However, at the time Ayatollah Khomeini was leading Iranians in revolution, a number of other Ayatollahs were opposing him. All of those Ayatollahs living in Iraq were in direct conflict with Khomeini's interpretation of Islamic government, and particularly with the idea of clerical rule. This is still the case today.

Baqir al-Hakim, the leading Iraqi Ayatollah, is now in exile in Iran. He is careful about articulating his religious philosophy, but his view of Islamic government is not in accord with the Iranian regime. If he were to play a prominent role in post-war Iraq, he would undoubtedly be friendly with Tehran, but would by no means be under Iranian control. The same is true for other Iraqi Shi'a leaders.

One thing is certain. America will not be able to reconstruct Iraq without Shi'a cooperation. It would make sense to start healing old wounds, and building bridges with the community for the future now.

PNS contributor William O. Beeman (William_beeman@brown.edu) teaches anthropology and is director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. He is author of "Language, Status and Power in Iran" and two forthcoming books: "Double Demons: Cultural Impediments to U.S.-Iranian Understanding," and "Iraq: State in Search of a Nation."

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