Iraq's Oppressed Majority

For nearly a century, the nation's 15 million Shiite Muslims have been denied access to political power. How their demands are met in the months to come could well determine Iraq's future

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I viewed the massive destruction caused by the Hakim bomb during a trip to the shrine to see where a man I once knew had also been murdered. Last April, Abdul Majid al- Khoei, the son of a grand ayatollah, had just returned to Najaf—with the blessing of coalition forces, who appreciated his energy and liberal views—after 12 years of exile in London. Just inside the courtyard of the Ali shrine, a mob attacked him. Two companions were stabbed to death, but Khoei managed to escape and run the 50 or so yards that brought him to the front door of a house belonging to Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite extremist, who is a son of the martyred Sadr II. Khoei pleaded for shelter, but although there is little doubt that Muqtada was inside, the door did not open. Ashopkeeper finally took Khoei in, but the mob followed, dragged him down the street and round the corner, and knifed him to death.

Muqtada has always denied having had any role in the killing, though no one in Najaf that I talked to doubts his responsibility. Khoei not only believed in cooperation with the occupation but also stood for the separation of church and state, as opposed to the Iranian system of clerical rule, which Muqtada has endorsed.

On the day I retraced Khoei’s desperate flight, Muqtada’s well-guarded door was open and his front room crowded with petitioners seeking his help or advice. Three clerics sat at a table collecting wads of bank notes contributed by the faithful. Six months after the invasion that toppled his father’s killer, Muqtada was embroiled in an escalating conflict with the coalition forces and seemed to welcome any opportunity to confront them or, for that matter, other Shiite groups. Muqtada certainly enjoys a large amount of support among the poorer Shiites, most particularly among young unemployed men in the great Shiite slum of SadrCity in Baghdad. In the week following the peaceful 15th Shaban celebrations in Karbala, Muqtada’s gunmen attempted to take over the Hussein shrine in a shootout with supporters of a rival leader that left several dead and wounded on both sides. A few days later, they fought a U.S. patrol near the shrine, killing three Americans. (There were reports of a U.S. crackdown on Muqtada as we went to press.)

Opposing Muqtada in Karbala had been a shrine protection force loyal to perhaps the most important and revered Shiite leader in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sistani, 73, was born in Iran but moved to Najaf more than 50 years ago to study. He spent much of the 1990s under the baleful surveillance of Saddam’s security forces. Yet from his house, he maintained an extraordinary moral authority over the Shiite masses. When, in mid-April, there was an erroneous radio report that Sistani’s house was under siege by followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the news spread like wildfire. “I was sleeping in a village near Basra that night,” recalls Hussain Shahristani. “Suddenly I saw the villagers grabbing their guns and preparing to rush to Najaf, hundreds of miles away. ‘Sistani is under attack,’ they told me. That was all they needed to know. The same thing happened all over Iraq.”

Though he has denounced violence and the proliferation of firearms in Iraq, Sistani himself has command of a far more potent weapon—the immense authority of his fatwas. Last July he addressed the fundamental question of how he wanted the constitution for Iraq to be written. The occupation authorities had endorsed a plan by which their handpicked governing council would appoint a committee that would in turn devise the new constitution. In a fatwa written in graceful classical Arabic, Sistani declared that this approach was “unacceptable” because there was no guarantee that a constitution produced in this way would “represent the (Iraqi) National identity of which Islam and the noble values of society are an integral part.” (Sistani has always rejected Khomeini’s thesis on direct clerical rule.) Instead, he insisted, anyone writing a constitution would have to be elected. A constitution devised by any other means, he made clear, would be “illegitimate.”

The story goes that when Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, sent a message to the venerable religious leader suggesting that the two men cooperate on the constitution, Sistani sent a message back: “Mr. Bremer, you are an American and I am an Iranian. I suggest we leave it up to the Iraqis to devise their constitution.”

Few in Iraq believe that a constitution denounced by Sistani would stand a chance. But any fair election would almost certainly deliver a Shiite-dominated constitutional assembly. The underdogs and rebels would at last be in power—a sea change for a group that has so long defined itself through resistance to oppression. Will the Shiites still celebrate martyrdom when they are, themselves, in power? And who will judge them if they prove unjust?

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