Events in Iraq in recent days have shocked Americans. U.S. military forces are bravely attempting to establish law and order, freedom and democracy–why would any Iraqis oppose that, least of all in the Shia south, a region that was cruelly oppressed by Saddam Hussein?
The answer, as I know from extensive contacts among my fellow Shia in Iraq, is that most Shia do not oppose the Americans. Those fighting against American troops in Iraq are a radical and unrepresentative minority. Moqtada Sadr and his so-called Mahdi Army are abhorred by most Shia Iraqis. They regard him as a rabble rouser and as motivated by self-interest. Most Shia will be pleased to see Moqtada defeated. Most have no patience for a man who is throwing away a year of peace and political achievement and fomenting murder and mayhem.
The issue now is how to decisively defeat Moqtada.
In hindsight, it is easy to criticize the U.S., to say that Moqtada should have been neutralized or arrested early on. The problem was that back in April and May of 2003, this young cleric, the son of a prominent scholar murdered by Saddam’s regime, seemed like nothing more than a buffoon. Even when he announced his own government and the formation of what he called a Mahdi Army last autumn (it was unarmed at that time) he still appeared to be only a paper tiger.
Now, ensuring his defeat is critical. But at the same time, there needs to be a parallel political strategy of reaching out to the Shia political parties, not relegating them to the sidelines.
At the same time, the Shia have to know that the Americans are committed to helping them build a free and democratic Iraq–no matter the obstacles from extremists, from foreign jihadis and from the remnants of the former ruling class. Many Shia still worry that if the going gets rough the Americans will abandon them. It would not be the first time.
The U.S. would be wise to involve Shia Iraqis more fully in the running of Iraq’s security forces. Some positive steps have been taken. The new minister of defense and the national-security adviser are both Shia.
But Shia leaders on the Governing Council report that they have been shut out of the planning to deal with the Moqtada insurgency. This is a grave error, for the Shia leaders on the Governing Council understand their people and their fears. They can play a critical role in helping craft a U.S. political strategy to back the military campaign that will appeal to the silent, pro-democracy majority of the Shia. Such a political strategy will isolate Moqtada from all but the most fanatical.
Only Shia leaders can communicate to the Shia masses that if the Americans are forced to leave, as Moqtada demands, then the Sunni Baathists, such as those now committing acts of terrorism in Fallujah, will attempt to take the country back. The vengeance of restored Sunni rulers in Iraq can hardly be imagined–it is the greatest fear of all Shia Iraqis.
The U.S. has reached a critical period in the rebuilding of Iraq. A silent majority may provide a solid base of stability in a developed democracy such as the United States, but in a developing democracy like Iraq silence leaves a vacuum that can be filled by extremists and their intimidating violence. The Shia desire freedom in a democratic Iraq. If the U.S. gives them a larger role, they will see that they finally have a stake worth fighting for.
–Agha Shaukat Jafri is secretary general of the Universal Muslim Association of America the only national Islamic Shia organization in the U.S.