KUFA and NAJAF – The future of Iraq itself depends on the resolution of the Shi’ite problem. Nearly 70 percent of the Arab population of Iraq is Shi’ite, but they have always been a political minority to the Sunnis.
Kufa, founded in AD 638 under caliph Omar, is the birthplace of the Shi’ite faith – and also where Arab calligraphy was perfected into the splendid Kufic style. Ali, Prophet Muhamad’s brother-in-law, the fourth caliph and first imam, was mortally wounded in the Great Mosque in 658: his magnificent mausoleum is in neighboring Najaf – Islam’s fourth sacred city after Mecca, Medina and Al Quds (Jerusalem).
It’s not easy for a foreigner – even accompanied by the requisite Ministry of Information guide – to get inside the Kufa mosque. An angry crowd repeats “it’s prohibited to infidels.” What’s the solution, then? “To become a Muslim. Allah prefers Islam.” Muhamad Abdel Saheb, from the ministry’s protocol department, intervenes to solve the problem and allow access.
According to Saheb, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein makes “donations” to help the maintenance of the mosque – which are then distributed among hundreds of workers. Pilgrims are everywhere – straight out of a mass of tour buses. Saheb explains that for Shi’ite pilgrims living in the Gulf, no visa is necessary. But Iranians are allowed only on a seven-day Iraqi visa – enough for them to tour the holy places. At any given time, at least 8,000 Iranian pilgrims are doing the religious circuit in Baghdad, Kufa and Najaf.
Saheb’s discourse is the standard Shi’ite one to be heard all over Iraq. He says that “most of all, I am Iraqi, and also a Muslim. Here there is no difference between Shi’ite and Sunni. The difference was imposed by the Zionists. Of course, we are members of the Arab Nation. And we are also known for our courage. Our force comes from Allah.”
He is not afraid of a new American attack, “The Americans are enemies of humanity.” He laughs at the mention of the axis of evil. “The Americans want to dominate the whole world.” And he has a few words to say about Osama bin Laden, “Even if he did it, the Americans had no right to bomb Afghanistan. He is an Arab. The whole thing is about oil.”
The great Moroccan voyager Ibn Battuta wrote in the 14th century that Ali’s tomb in Najaf was on a road right beside the tombs of Adam and Noah. Today, the tombs are housed in a magnificent mausoleum at the Al Rawdah Al Haidaria Al Mukadasa mosque – one of the most splendid all over Islam, evoking the intoxicating atmosphere of mosques in Samarkand, Isfahan or the Ummayad mosque in Damascus. Ayatollah Khomeini lived as a refugee in Najaf – the top Shi’ite religious center – between 1965 and 1978. The current imam – Dr Haider Muhamad Hassan Alkelydar – does not remember the ayatollah very well, he was too young. Dr Haider is the ninth imam in a 200-year-old religious family.
At his office, looking through a large window at a seemingly endless, hypnotizing procession of women in black contrasting with the shiny white floor, Dr Haider swears that there is no official discrimination against Shi’ites. He points out that the governor of Najaf is Shi’ite. Saddam Hussein himself came to the mosque a few times: in fact, there is a striking ceramic portrait of a praying president, close to the entrance to the tombs.
The imam confirms the existence of jihad training camps near Najaf – not to fight the government, but Israelis oppressing Palestinians. As well as Saheb in Kufa, he confirms, “We are waiting for a sign from the president to declare a jihad. Everywhere in Iraq people are ready – they have received military training.” The majority of these jihadi trainees in Najaf are of course Shi’ite. But the camps are absolutely off-limits for foreign visitors. Later in Baghdad, Asia Times Online, after repeated requests, received a definitive “no” from the Ministry of Information.
To understand the importance of the Shi’ite factor, it is essential to remember how contemporary Iraq is a “made in Britain” affair. Immediately after Sykes-Picot – representing an Anglo-French colonial entente – divided the Ottoman Empire, London in 1920 grouped three regions – around Baghdad, Basra and Mosul – into a country under British “mandate.” To govern this country, London placed the Hashemite dynasty, which had already been chased out from Saudi Arabia by the Saudis, and from Syria by the French.
This 1920s Iraq offered the British Empire very important advantages. It had oil fields, and because the British wanted to build a transcontinental railroad from Europe, across Turkey, and down through Iraq to Kuwait on the Persian Gulf, this railroad would allow a direct trade route with India without having to skirt Africa.
This “made in Britain” Iraq more or less united Shi’ites from Lower Mesopotamia, Sunni regions around Baghdad and Kurd regions around Mosul – which in the beginning were French-controlled: but French premier Georges Clemenceau did not know they were oil-rich, and the British got them. Politically, from the beginning, the Sunnis were the dominant power – and the Shi’ites the dominated: the same status quo that had existed during centuries of the Ottoman Empire.
So whatever the dominant power – Ottomans, Hashemites, British, lay, and finally the Baath Party – the Shi’ites, the majority of the population, have always remained politically inferior.
The Baath Party, and then Saddam Hussein, have always had a very straightforward policy towards the Shi’ite majority. The aim of this political elite – members of the generation of the 1958 revolution which ended the monarchy – was to create a strong nation: Iraq. Iraq had everything it took to become a regional power: millions of people, lots of oil and – a blessing for an Arab country – lots of water, thanks to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
So Iraq had to become a modern, Arab and secular nation. The political elite’s imperative was to destroy any alternative manifestation of religious and ethnic power – such as Kurd nationalism in the north and the Shi’ite majority communalism in the south and even the Madan (Marsh Arabs) .
The victory of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 was a tremendous blow for Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s recurrent nightmare at the beginning of the 1980s was Shi’ite Iran dismembering Iraq into three different countries: Kurd, Sunni and Shi’ite. This nightmare was one of the driving factors of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that began in 1980, during which the West, especially the US, relished occupying the best ringside seats.
Saddam Hussein thought that Iran would attack first, so he pre-empted by using the pretext of getting back the regions of Iranian Khuzistan – which the Iraqis call Arabistan. Arabistan is basically populated by Arab tribes: the majority are Shi’ite. So Saddam Hussein – under the banner of Arab nationalism and under the pretext of rectifying an unjust borderline – went to war to destroy the Islamic Republic of Iran before the Iranians destroyed Iraq.
As far as the Shi’ite factor is concerned, the crucial fact in the war was that Iran did not manage to coax Iraqi Shi’ites into destabilizing the Baath Party regime. As everyone knows, the war was technically a draw. But internally in Iraq, the Baath Party accomplished a tremendous victory: the integration of all its communities into a strong Arab nationalist state.
The Shi’ite factor is also crucial to explain why the armies of George Bush Senior did not go all the way to Baghdad in 1991. The US assumed that Iraq might implode. A Kurd country might spring up in the north. And most of all, a second Shi’ite Islamic Republic might spring up in the south, allied in a sense to Iran, and right on the spot of the all-important oil fields.
At the end of the Gulf War, the Shi’ite masses in southern Iraq did rebel anyway. Saddam Hussein’s repression was absolutely devastating. Western apologists of “human rights” looked the other way. More than 40,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of Arab Shi’ites had to become refugees in neighboring Iran. The aftermath of the Gulf War reveals how the Shi’ite factor is the heart of the matter in Iraq.
The miserable masses of the south are overwhelmingly Shi’ite. They have been the main victims of the UN embargo and sanctions. There is absolutely no visible evidence in southern Iraq that they would support an American-induced rebellion against the regime in Baghdad – as some supremely disinformed Washington hawks would have it. But there is also some invisible evidence that they would do anything to get rid of Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party.
The imam of the lavish Masjid Al Musaoi al Kabir, in Basra – a private mosque financed by a high-ranking Shi’ite leader of Saudi Arabian origin – is very happy about the resurgence of Islam in Iraq. “Yes, people now are turning to religion. They have suffered so much – after the Iran-Iraq war, the Mother of all Battles [the Gulf War], and the embargo.” He refuses to admit Shi’ites are oppressed.
But some locals – members of the Shi’ite miserable masses – and willing to talk to foreigners after a lot of persuasion, finally admit that they “hate the king” (as Saddam is referred to), although they hate the Americans even more for taking away “our jobs, our clean water, our medicine and the future of our children.”
Iraqi Shi’ites cannot be kept politically marginalized because sooner or later there will be a rebellion: the government is even afraid of Saddam city, the Baghdad neighborhood. Saddam and the Baath Party know it, and they try to seduce the Shi’ite leadership with a few carrots – but not real political say in the government. Washington perhaps has got part of the picture: what it hasn’t got is the impossibility of sponsoring Shi’ites in a rebellion against the government: these people consider themselves most of all Iraqis, and would never accept American help. So the US prefers the status quo: Saddam in power, always menaced by America, and always having to look behind his back in fear of Shi’ite instability.