Though the Baath Party had originally numbered many Shiites among its leaders, by the time it began its 35-year rule with a coup in 1968, the leadership was solidly in the hands of a tight group of Sunni tribesmen, including a ruthless hit man named Saddam Hussein, from the region around Tikrit. Apart from hunting down and killing their former Communist rivals, Saddam and his militantly secular colleagues also took aim at the Shiite religious leadership.
In response to the wholesale defection of many of their flock to the Communists, the Shiite religious leadership made efforts to modernize their message and attract new followers. Prominent among them was a brilliant scholar named Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, the principal sponsor of Dawa, a radical Islamic political party that confronted the Baathists as an opposition group throughout the 1970s.
The confrontation intensified after Ayatollah Khomeini, himself a Shiite who had spent most of the 1960s and ’70s in Najaf developing his theory that clergy had the exclusive right to govern, seized power in Iran in 1979. Sadr, thrilled by Iran’s mass Islamic uprising against the shah, thought a similar religious takeover of the government was possible in Iraq. Saddam, apparently worried that Sadr might be right, launched a campaign to round up his supporters. In April 1980, Sadr and his sister were arrested and executed.
Shahristani, the nuclear scientist and prison escapee, was close to Sadr. He told me that at the end, the Baathists offered Sadr a deal. “They said they would release him in exchange for a promise of silence. Sadr said, ‘No. I have closed all the doors, there is no escape for you. Now you have to kill me so the people can rise up.’ ” As any Shiite would immediately understand, it was an embrace of martyrdom that echoed the self-sacrifice of Hussein 1,300 years before.
Both Sadr’s hopes and Saddam’s fears proved groundless. The people did not rise up, and in the eight-year war that followed Saddam’s invasion of Iran in September 1980, Shiite conscripts for the most part fought doggedly for Iraq, largely motivated, despite their grievances and persecution, by Iraqi patriotism.
But after the 1991 Gulf War, inspired by calls for an uprising from Washington, Shiites finally erupted in furious rebellion. That the expected U.S. assistance never came has hardly been forgotten.
Nobody knows how many people were killed in Saddam’s savage reprisals for the uprising, but the number is at least in the tens of thousands. One mass grave of those slaughtered has alone yielded more than 3,000 bodies, and hundreds of such graves have been unearthed. Ironically, the Baathist’s savagery helped unify the diverse Shiite community. In the 1990s, even while cracking down viciously on Shiite religious leadership, Saddam made attempts to bolster his support among religious conservatives by encouraging such Islamic practices as the veiling of women, the segregation of the sexes in schools and the prohibition of alcohol. (Gestures to appease Shiites included repairs to shrines and a manufactured family tree tracing Saddam’s ancestry back to Ali.) But while the measures helped revive traditions, they produced no corresponding support for the dictator.
Toward the end of the decade, Shiites found a leader in the person of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a teacher from Najaf and a distant relative of the resistance leader executed in 1980. Initially encouraged by the regime because of his denunciations of the United States, Sadr II, as he is often called, set up a network of followers across southern Iraq and in Baghdad. Late in 1998, though, he began wearing the white martyr’s shroud while denouncing Saddam’s regime to growing and enthusiastic crowds. In February 1999, while driving home in Najaf, Sadr, along with two of his sons, was duly machine-gunned to death by state security agents.
Today, portraits of Sadr II, who is invariably depicted as a humble ancient with a snow-white beard, adorn walls and billboards around Iraq. These frequently share space with bearded, turbaned portraits of other Shiite leaders, many of them dead—testimony to the high mortality rate in Shiite religious politics. A few hundred yards from the site of the al-Sadr murder, for example, is a green-domed tomb, still under construction, that contains what few remains could be collected of the late Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al- Hakim, founder and leader of a political party called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. He was the victim of a massive car bomb that exploded as he was leaving Najaf ’s Imam Ali shrine on August 29 this year.
Hakim was almost certainly killed by former members of Saddam’s security services now active in the resistance and determined to eliminate anyone, like Hakim, who cooperated with the Americans. However, at the funeral ceremonies, attended by hundreds of thousands of Hakim’s followers, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, his brother and successor as leader of the party, bitterly denounced the occupation forces for their failure to protect Hakim. It seemed that at least some Shiites were finding reasons to criticize their new rulers.