Before the start of the campaign to liberate Iraq, pundits and exiles had cast the Shiite community as an almost unconditional ally of the United States. Iraqi Shiites were supposed to be as keen to rise against Saddam Hussein as the so-called “Arab street” was sizzling to explode in his support.
As it happened, however, there was little or no uprising of the Shiites.
Terrorized by Saddam’s machinery of fear, the community did not wish to repeat its tragic experience of 1991 when it rose and, abandoned by the U.S., was crushed by the regime.
Less than two weeks after the liberation the tune has changed.
The same pundits and exiles now claim that Shiites represent the biggest threat to U.S. plans in Iraq.
That claim is supported by television footage of a pilgrimage held last week by hundreds of thousands of Shiites to the shrine of Imam Hussein at Karbala, 80 miles south of Baghdad.
The gathering was impressive by any standards as was the fervor of the pilgrims. Coming on the occasion of Arbain, the 40th day of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein over 1,300 years ago, the pilgrimage attracted the faithful from all over Iraq.
For the first time in 32 years Iraqi Shiites were able to perform a pilgrimage that had been banned by the Baathist regime. It was also the first free mass gathering in Iraq in almost half a century not to be crushed by the regime’s tanks and helicopters.
Was all that a show of anti-Americanism or, at least, a “warning” to Washington as some pundits claim?
On the contrary: The gathering showed how isolated anti-American groups are among Iraqi Shiites.
Throughout Arbain, small bands of militants, some freshly arrived from Iran, were posted at the entrance of streets leading to the two main shrines. They carried placards and posters calling for an “Islamic republic” and shouted anti-American slogans. But it soon became clear that few pilgrims were prepared to join them.
All the pilgrims I could talk to expressed their “gratitude and appreciation” to the U.S. and its British allies for having freed them from the most brutal regime Iraq had seen since its creation in 1921.
Needless to say, however, most television cameras were focused on the small number of militants who had something “hot,” a.k.a. anti-American, to say.
After several days of talking to Shiites in Karbala and Najaf it is clear to this reporter that there is virtually no undercurrent of anti-Americanism in the heartland of Iraqi Shiism. Even some clerics who have just returned from exile in Iran were keen to advertise their goodwill towards the U.S.
All that, however, could quickly change.
The advent of liberty has unleashed energies that could both create and destroy. Here you have millions of people, mostly aged below 25 and never allowed to take the smallest decision without the fear of political authority, who suddenly feel that no one is in charge.
“We have been freed from a despotic father and feel like orphans: both happy and terrified,” says Mahdi Khadhim, a Karbala schoolteacher, expressing a widely held sentiment.”
Many Iraqis find it puzzling that the U.S. is not telling them what to do or not to do. One question a reporter is persistently asked is whether the Americans or “at least the British” have a plan for Iraq?
“Where do we go from here?” asks Hassan Naqib, a theology student just back from Iran. “Are we supposed to sort things out as we like?”
The U.S. and its allies impressed the Iraqis by the efficiency of their military machine. (Although little noticed by the media, few Iraqis outside Baghdad, and to a lesser extent Basra, directly experienced the war.)
Some Iraqis wonder whether that efficient military machine might lack a political brain. The political vacuum created by the collapse of the Baathist regime widens by the day, and there are no signs that the U.S. or anybody else for that matter might have a clue as to how to fill it.
Having no jobs or schools to go to, millions of young men gather at teahouses or at private homes to discuss politics, something they had never dared indulge in. The atmosphere is charged with expectation and uncertainty. These young men want to be heroic and revolutionary, the makers of a history of which they had always been mere objects.
For the time being few are looking towards Iran either as model or as a source of inspiration. But that, too, could change.
During the past week or so hundreds of Iranian “revolutionary agents” have slipped into Iraq with vast sums of money, small arms, and propaganda material including portraits of the late Iranian firebrand Ruhallah Khomeini.
An extraordinary number of crisp U.S.-dollar notes are in circulation in the “holy” cities, most of it coming not from Uncle Sam, but from the mullahs in Tehran. In the absence of Iraqi radio and TV networks, and with the failure of the Americans to set up their own channels, many have to tune in to broadcasts from Iran.
Much of current American “political” activity among the Shiites consists of an extension of the fight within the Bush administration about who to promote as the interim leader for Iraq.
This leads to comical scenes. A local mullah is first approached and offered money by an American “contact” in exchange for supporting Ahmad Chalabi, a former exile leader now back in Baghdad. Later, another American “contact” calls on the same mullah and offers him money not to support Chalabi.
Some American “contacts” have forged a dialogue with the so-called Badr Brigade, a militant armed group backed by Iran. The group’s leader, Abdelaziz Hakim, returned to Karbala with a bodyguard of 200 men last week and has had several meetings with American ” contacts”. He has promised to change the name of his group’s political wing, The High Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), to replace the word “revolution” with “democracy” to please the Americans.
At the same time another group of American “contacts” are warning Iraqi interlocutors not to go near Hakim and his group.
Hakim’s men, meanwhile, are trying to persuade shopkeepers in Karbala and Najaf to display portraits of Khomeini alongside with those of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer Hakim, who is still in exile in Tehran, so far with little success.
There is a widely held impression that rival factions in Washington are prepared to forge alliances even with the devil, which in this case could mean the mullahs of Tehran, to sabotage each other’s plans.
President George W Bush needs to get a grip on situation that could run out of control. He must decide who is in charge of the political aspect of the Iraqi project. And, indeed, what that project consists of.
— Amir Taheri is the Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. A version of this piece appeared in the Sunday New York Post and is reprinted with the author’s permission. He’s reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.