The Shia community of Iraq has as many internal contradictions and conflict as it sees in the world beyond. Forming more than 60 percent of Iraq’s estimated 25 million population, Shiites have not controlled their destiny, much less their country since Iraq’s independence in 1922. Like the entire nation, Shiites have had virtually no opportunity to express their political will.
At the same time, the numerically dominant Shia Muslims have as many internal conflicts as they have with Iraq’s other major population groupings. It is instructive that Shiite numerical dominance has never resulted in political control, despite their being three times the size of the Kurdish community, which at 20 percent, represents Iraq’s next largest grouping.
In fact, for its entire 80-year history, Iraq has been run by Sunnis, who represent 10 percent of the citizenry. In the early years, the United Kingdom thrust a foreign Sunni, Faisal, of the Hashemite tribe in Saudi Arabia upon the newly launched nation. Largely because of Britain’s ongoing neo-colonial status in the country, Faisal remained king until overthrown in 1958. In significant part owing to misplaced U.S. and British fears that a Shiite government in Baghdad would ally itself with Shia-dominated Iran, Western powers accepted the autocratic, nominally Sunni Saddam Hussein, particularly after the 1979 revolution overthrew the relatively moderate Shah of Iran.
During the 1980-88 war between Iraq and Iran, the Iraqi Shiites fought as valiantly as any element of Saddam’s armies, but this did not convince America’s closest ally in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia. Worried about the allegiance of its own Shia community, the Saudis convinced the United States not to support Iraq’s Shiite revolt against Saddam, following the first Gulf War in 1991. Although they held Saddam’s forces at bay for several days, Baghdad’s technological strength eventually succeeded. There followed more than a decade of murderous subjugation, in which Saddam’s troops are believed to have slaughtered more than 200,000 Shia, drained their rich agricultural lands of water and provided only the most rudimentary government services.
In the second Gulf War, several observers were surprised by the restrained Shiite welcome for coalition forces. Given historic relations with Britain and the United States, plus Revolutionary Guards’ orders to shoot at the first indication of disloyalty, others considered it remarkable that An Najaf-based, highly respected Grand Ayatollah Seyyed al-Sistani issued a fatwa calling Shia to cooperate with coalition forces before the holy city was secured. Contrary sentiments expressed within hours by several other clerics in An Najaf underscored the political pressures and internal divisiveness within the community.
Despite liberal, socialist, nationalist, and Islamist political factions, a clear majority appear to favor a secular democracy. Of greater concern is the division between a virulent minority calling for jihad in the event “infidel U.S. and British invaders” show any inclination to prolonged occupation and groups like the Tehran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq led by Baker al-Hakim, who have allied themselves with Washington.
Decades dwelling in the political wilderness have not created unity among Iraq’s Shias. Whether the country’s majority community can pull together in peace, to gain their fair share of recognition and governance in a democratic postwar Iraq, remains to be seen.
— Hussain Hindawi is a native Iraqi historian, humanitarian, and journalist who currently serves as editor of UPI’s Arabic News Service. John R. Thomson has been involved in the Middle East since 1966 as businessman, diplomat and journalist. He has lived in Beirut, Cairo, and Riyadh, and reported extensively during and after the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1990-91 Gulf War.