WASHINGTON — As descendants of the original Mesopotamians, the Shiites of Iraq represent a civilization that has been among the richest in the Middle East, producing some of Islam's most glorious shrines and the Arab world's most famous legends. Their land is equally rich, holding two-thirds of Iraq's 100 billion barrels of proven oil reserves.
Yet the Shiites, who account for 55% of Iraq's 17.5 million people and a majority of its army troops, are the poorest community. Their culture and religion are in limbo. And, despite their numbers, they have been brutally repressed at home, despised or disdained by neighboring Arabs and shunned by most of the outside world--largely just for being Shiites.
Indeed, after Operation Desert Storm, Middle East insiders joked that the only thing Baghdad and Washington still had in common was their fear of the Shiites, specifically their potential for zealotry made famous by their brethren in Iran and Lebanon.
But 17 months into a tense, still deadlocked showdown between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the outside world, the United States and its coalition partners are now betting on the Shiites to help finally tip the balance against the Iraqi leader. Speaking for the coalition, President Bush may announce as early as today action by the United States, Britain and France to enforce a "no-fly" zone in which Iraqi aircraft will risk being shot down if they fly over Shiite lands south of the 32nd Parallel.
Anxiety about the Shiites led the United States just last year to refrain from helping an uprising they mounted against Hussein, the boldest rebellion against the Iraqi leader since he became president in 1979. For American interests, the prospect of Hussein's remaining in power seemed preferable to the fragmentation of Iraq--and to the assumed repercussions elsewhere in the Mideast that might have resulted from a successful revolution in Iraq's southern Shiite stronghold.
What indications are there that the Shiites can now help the rest of the world get rid of Hussein, something they have so far been unable to do for themselves? "This time it's different," said Yusuf Khoei, grandson of the Grand Ayatollah Abul Qasim Khoei, the world's leading Shiite cleric until his death this month in southern Iraq.
"Once the Shia feel the international community is serious, then people will have courage and rise up. Last time, when we were abandoned, many felt the West was not really interested, so they were disheartened and didn't try again," Khoei said from exile in London, where he works with the opposition Iraqi National Congress.
The Shiite opposition now envisions a sequence of events quite different from that at the time of their March, 1991, uprising, according to Laith Kubba, one of the National Congress leaders who met last month with former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.
After the coalition formally establishes the air shield, the Shiite opposition expects that Hussein will send ground troops to bolster his hold on the south and that the U.S.-led coalition, in turn, will enlarge its response.
"Saddam may try to probe, but once the lines are established, even he won't try to use tanks because the army won't go to its own slaughter. They'd defect first," said Kubba, who is also in exile in London.
During and after Operation Desert Storm, more than 60,000 Iraqi troops defected. The vast majority of them were Shiites.
"Once assured of air cover, most of the senior or middle-level officers will switch loyalty and take charge," Kubba said. Although most ranking officers belong to Islam's mainstream Sunni sect, most of the soldiers are Shiites.
Hussein's hold on the south will then gradually disintegrate, the National Congress believes. With the Kurdish north above the 36th Parallel under coalition protection since last year, Baghdad will have control over only about half the country. When this stage is reached, the military in the center will be virtually cut off and will then be under unprecedented pressure to relieve Iraq of the source of its troubles--Hussein.
As appealing as this scenario is, U.S. analysts and private experts are not quite as convinced as the Iraqi National Congress that it will be so straightforward.
American specialists refer to it as the "Afghan strategy," a reference to the decade-long Afghan war during which \o7 moujahedeen \f7 rebels slowly moved toward the center until the Soviet-backed regime collapsed.
"That's certainly the direction we're headed in, although it always seemed a little far-fetched to me," one U.S. Iraqi specialist said. "It also has the potential to dismember the country."
Added Laurie Mylroie, an expert on Iraq at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy: "It's not going to bring him down overnight. More things have to be done."