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A Formidable Muslim Bloc Emerges

With the Iraq war, the U.S. may have unwittingly created an unbroken chain of Shiite-dominated nations.

May 27, 2003|William O. Beeman

The war in Iraq has produced an unintended consequence -- a formidable Shiite Muslim geographical bloc that will dominate politics in the Middle East for many years. This development is also creating political and spiritual leaders of unparalleled international influence.

It is easy to see the Shiite lineup. Iran and Iraq have a Shiite majority, and so does Bahrain. In Lebanon, Shiites are a significant plurality. In Syria, although they are a minority, they are the dominant power in government. They are the majority in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia and have a significant presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

The U.S. is used to thinking of the world in terms of individual nation-states. But the Shiites are a transnational force. The U.S. has unwittingly supplied the key linkage for this bloc by destroying the secular government of Saddam Hussein. That brought that country's Shiite majority to the fore, creating a solid line of Shiite-dominated nations from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.

This force is magnified because devout Shiite followers have a primary loyalty to spiritual leaders rather than secular officials. Shiite leaders are organized, well funded and set up to provide charitable aid, health care and social welfare, a notable weakness in the organization of U.S. occupation forces thus far.

On May 19, more than 1,000 Shiite protesters marched in Baghdad to protest the American presence in Iraq. The crowd cried "No, no for America! Yes, yes for Al Hawza!" The Hawza is the influential council of Islamic clerics, in the city of Najaf.

The strength of the Shiite community lies in its independent and dynamic leadership. There are about 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, 112 million of whom are Shiites.

The Shiite community split from the Sunni community over the Shiite belief that the Prophet's son-in-law Ali was his rightful successor. The Iraqi city of Najaf, where Ali is buried, is rapidly becoming the Vatican of the Shiite world.

There are also differences between Shiite and Sunni in ritual, legal and political organization. Sunni Muslims have four established schools of interpretation of Islamic law. Shiites by contrast have no absolute fixed legal interpretations. In place of a fixed code, each believer chooses a spiritual leader -- a "person worthy of emulation" -- usually an ayatollah, who serves as a legal and spiritual guide.

The Imam Ali Foundation, run by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, perhaps the most revered Shiite religious leader, provided the following explanation on the role of the spiritual leader: "You do what the [leader's] expert opinion says you should do, and refrain from what his expert opinion says you should refrain from, without any research on your part. It is as though you have placed the responsibility of your deeds squarely on his shoulders."

A spiritual leader is also well financed by his followers. Most ayatollahs run extensive charitable organizations. The combination of financial resources and untrammeled influence over their followers makes the clerics very powerful men.

Fortunately, most spiritual leaders are responsible to a fault because misuse of their authority is tantamount to blasphemy. The Hawza assembly called for by the Baghdad protesters is needed because ayatollahs are in competition for authority and influence. The council helps provide a unified voice for the community of believers.

This does not entirely prevent rivalry, especially in Iraq, where a number of ayatollahs are returning from decades of exile. The latest is Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who has a military group, the Badr Brigade, at his beck and call. A rival to Hakim is Muqtader Sadr, whose father, revered cleric Mohammad Sadeq Sadr, was assassinated by Saddam Hussein in 1999. Muqtader Sadr is charismatic and is set to inherit his father's mantle eventually. There is also Mohammed Fartusi, who runs Muqtader Sadr's operations in Baghdad. Fartusi was probably the organizer of the May 19 protest.

Sistani, as the most revered cleric, has enormous influence. He seems to favor the politics of balance, giving him effective control over the Hawza. A few savvy officials in the Bush administration hope that Sistani will serve as a stabilizing force in the reconstruction period.

However, they should not be too sanguine about this. Sistani is committed to Shiite rule in Iraq and has indicated that he is losing patience with American occupation. The loyalty of his followers could make him one of the most powerful spiritual and political figures in the world.

The Bush administration, as well as the U.S. Congress, has become nervous about the obvious power demonstrated by the Shiites in Iraq in the last few weeks.

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