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Meet the Shia: They Could Make or Break the Future of Iraq

Sheikh Abbas holds a sword symbolizing the Shia struggle for justice as he addresses thousands of followers, February 2004.
Sheikh Abbas holds a sword symbolizing the Shia struggle for justice as he addresses thousands of followers, February 2004.

In Baghdad’s upscale al-Mansour neighborhood, change is afoot. The towering pillars of a massive, but yet incomplete, mosque are visible from all around. The gray concrete supports stretching high into the smoggy haze of the Iraqi capital will eventually be topped by ninety-nine domes, making this the world’s largest mosque. Inside the unfinished, skeletal structure, posters of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, slain by Saddam in 1998, have been haphazardly stuck to the concrete walls by members of the numerous Shia families who now live on the grounds of the building zone.

With Saddam gone, Iraq’s Shia population has emerged from their marginalization and laid claim, not just to the biggest unfinished mosque in the world, but also to Iraq’s political future. For the Americans, the highly organized and disciplined Shia represent an oppositional movement that has grown increasingly hostile to the occupation. A real Shia uprising could conjure problems that would easily dwarf those now presented by the armed, primarily Sunni insurgency.

In late January the world got its first glimpse of Iraqi Shia power when Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the reclusive Iranian-born Shia spiritual leader and undisputed shot-caller from Iraq’s largest religious group, announced protests to demand direct elections rather than the U.S. proposed plan of handing over sovereignty to a temporary government selected through U.S.-controlled regional caucuses.

As soon as Sistani spoke the streets of Iraqi cities filled with hundreds of thousands of angry, chanting Shia. As New York Times reporter Edward Wong observed the number of Shia Muslims taking to the streets of Baghdad was nearly equal to the number of American troops in the whole of Iraq. In response to this show of force, word went out from deep within the nether regions of the CPA headquarters— "Bring in the blue helmets!" Faced with such a defiant and disciplined challenge, the Americans quickly backpedaled on their plans. Paul Bremer immediately flew to New York and Washington for consultations, the United Nations was brought in and the U.S. quickly said it was open to some form of elections in Iraq.

So who are the Shia of Iraq?

The Shia view their recent ascent in political power as part of a thirteen-hundred- year struggle against oppression. In 680 AD, Hussain, the son of Ali, was assassinated during his campaign to keep direct descendants of Mohammed as the ruling Muslim caliphs, or spiritual leaders of Islam. Since this event, the Shia have long been subordinate to the Sunni minority in the region. The Ummayads, Abbasids, Mamluks, and Turkish Ottomans, were all Sunni dynasties that ruled Iraq and marginalized the Shia.

In the early 20th century, following the defeat of the Ottomans, the Shia remained largely shut out of national affairs, as the more politically connected Sunni population of Baghdad became the preferred partner in Britain’s colonial project. Years later, Saddam Hussain instituted harsh measures meant to deplete and crush any potential threat to his power from the majority Shia. He withheld infrastructural support and aide— exacerbating the existing poverty in the Shia-dominated south. Shia religious schools, or hawzas, were ransacked and closed in most parts of the country and outspoken critics of Saddam, many of them leading religious clerics, were jailed, tortured, or died in horrible and unfortunate "accidents."

With the removal of Saddam and the failure of the American occupation authorities to maintain control, a vast political vacuum has emerged. The Shia, along with the Kurdish population in the north, have moved quickly to occupy this space and capitalize on opportunities to assert power.

Shia protesters demand an end to American occupation and direct elections as they march through the dilapidated streets of Baghdad’s Kadhamiya neighborhood, February 2004. Photos by Rob Eshelman.
Shia protesters demand an end to American occupation and direct elections as they march through the dilapidated streets of Baghdad’s Kadhamiya neighborhood, February 2004. Photos by Rob Eshelman.

Central in this drama is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to whom most Shia look to for religious and political guidance. Sistani’s power comes from his reputation as an ascetic and extremely hard-working scholar and his longtime religious grooming in the Shia holy city of Najaf, where several of the most important caliphs were martyred in the seventh century. More recently, his power has been augmented by his defiant and sophisticated political opposition to the American-led occupation. Rarely granting interviews or issuing direct public statements, he refuses to meet with any American official.

Other important but less powerful Shia leaders include the 30-year-old, staunchly anti-American Muqtada al-Sadr, son of slain cleric Sadiq al-Sadr, and Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Iraqi Governing Council member.

With Americans back home increasingly tolerant of a few dead soldiers a week, Bremer and company seem to be withstanding the current level of hostilities with the armed insurgency at work in the so-called "Sunni Triangle." However, a full-fledged popular political movement demanding elections presents a problem, which cannot be dealt with solely by utilizing the latest in Israeli-style counterinsurgency. After all, making Iraq a model for democracy in the Middle East was a core argument for the "manufacturers of consent" in Washington D.C. and London during the run-up to war. In a form of political Ju Jitsu, the Shia, who took to the streets in January, were merely insisting that the occupiers fulfill their promises.

Thanks to Shia restraint, the risk of these pro-election demonstrations escalating into a violent confrontation with U.S. forces was slim. Sistani and the teams of demonstrators were fully aware of American military power. The certain outcome of a battle in the streets against U.S. troops would be lots of dead Shia, though the cost in American lives would also have been high. Sistani showed a shrewd political awareness by calling off the demonstrations. Following the directive of their highly respected leader, the Shia protesters ceased their militant actions. The Shia’s message to the Americans had been made and the United Nations fact-finding team was on its way. Sistani, and the Shia, had gone eyeball to eyeball with the Americans and the occupiers blinked first. Though the big street demonstrations have stopped for now, the Shia agitation continues.

Sheikh Abbas approaches the microphone and pauses. Rising high above him, and the thousands of onlookers assembled, are the blue and white-tiled walls of Baghdad’s most sacred Shia mosque. Looking from his left, then to his right, out over the worshipers, he begins. "Allahu Akbar."

Again, "Allahu Akbar."

And again, "Allahu Akbar."

He repeats the mantra over and over—perhaps ten times. Each time he enunciates the phrase— "god is great"— the Shia Muslims in attendance respond— "Allahu Akbar."

It is Eid al-Adha. The Muslim holy day celebrating Ibrahim’s devotion to God. In order to prove his loyalty to Allah, Ibrahim was prepared to kill his own son. Preparation was proof enough for the Almighty so he stayed Abraham’s hand before the carnage commenced. It’s a fitting metaphor for the current political equation.

Sheikh Abbas’s holiday speech is a moving exhortation for Iraqi Muslims— Sunni and Shia— to unite in their love of country and a defiant rejection of the American occupation. The stoic religious figure demands an immediate withdraw of American troops and the setting of democratic elections to choose an Iraqi government.

During the speech, the Sheik holds a large curved sword. It is a reminder to the Shia that the sword should be used to wage peace but that it also sits ready to defend the principle of justice.

Flanking the Sheik during his oration is a tall, young man clutching a machine gun. The guard scans the assembled for any sign of danger. High above, along the ramparts edging the mosque— are more armed guards. Years of intense political repression under Saddam and the assassination of many consecutive Shia caliphs throughout history have made the Shia acutely aware of the deadly stakes involved in political opposition.

Following the Sheikh’s speech, a core of a few hundred march back through the muddy and pot-holed streets of Kadhamiya, a poverty stricken and seriously dilapidated Shia neighborhood. One of the Sheik’s lieutenants holds a megaphone and leads the marchers in a call and response. "Allahu Akbar" he declares through the handheld mic. The trailing crowd responds. Many in the group carry banners in support of elections and an end to American occupation.

Later, inside the Kadhamiya religious school where the Sheik teaches, we talk about the Shia’s role in the evolving politics of post-war Iraq.

Sheik Abbas returned from the World Social Forum in Mumbai, India just days ago. There, he met with global justice activists and spoke with conference attendees about his efforts to organize a multi-denominational and secular political movement in Iraq. Toward that end, the Sheik is a central figure in the formation of a Baghdad-based council consisting of Sunni, Shia, and Christian religious leaders, secular political parties, women’s organizations and other civil society groups.

The formation of this council contradicts what many believe is the Shia religious leadership’s efforts to implement Shariah law— a strict, literal interpretation of Koranic verse. National identity unifies many Iraqis, regardless of their religion or ethnicity, in opposition to the American occupation and in demanding democratic elections. The Sheik is insistent in this regard.

The Sheik puts the Shia in context within the current situation in Iraq. Yes, the Shia are different. They have suffered under many consecutive rulers. However, their desire— to live in a free Iraq— is no different from any other Iraqi— Sunni, Christian, or Communist.

Many Shia had high hopes for "Operation Iraqi Freedom." After all, they had the most to gain. With the removal of Saddam and the institution of elections, their time would surely come to preside over Iraq, they thought.

The Americans have completely botched things, though. Soaring costs of living and high unemployment, sporadic electricity and contaminated water supplies, arbitrary detentions and random shootings from passing military patrols— this is what they’ve brought. Many say the situation is now worse than during Saddam’s tenure. Discontent with the occupation has flourished. Patience is running out even for the Shia, thus the defiant words from the likes of Sistani and Sheikh Abbas and the massive street manifestations of late January.

Iraq continues to devolve and many— notably the American occupiers— insist that Iraq could descend into a Balkan-like break up along ethnic and religious lines. Kurdish leaders in the north have demanded oil revenue set-asides, refused to disarm their militia cadres, and stated that Arabs moved in under Saddam’s regime should be relocated in order to reinstate past Kurdish population superiority. Kurdish autonomy and their demands could very well escalate into a conflict.

However, in speaking with both Shia and Sunni Muslims, national identity emerges as the primary determinant and makes it hard to believe that the Americans insistence of potential civil war is warranted.

Recently, Kurdish and Shia leaders suggested moving forward with elections in the north and south where there is not armed insurgency. Some see this as the first step towards a tripartite Iraq, others see it as an urgent push for elections.

In the unpredictable and rapidly changing landscape of Iraqi politics, one cannot easily predict the future. However, one thing is certain— much hinges on the demands of Sistani and Iraq’s Shia majority. Unlikely to back down, the Shia are also making serious efforts to avoid armed conflict, which would be their ultimate form of leverage. Ultimately, however, anything can happen and it only takes a fanatical minority to set off a civil war.


Robert S. Eshelman

ROBERT S. ESHELMAN is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Nation, and In These Times.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2004

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