- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2003

As more than a million Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims converge on the holy city of Karbala in southern Iraq today, the leaders of Iraq's most powerful Iranian-backed Shi'ite group warned the United States there can be no lasting peace unless their interests are taken into account.
"We told them that, without depending on major forces such as us, they could not do everything in the country. They didn't listen and they are going to face problems," said spokesman Hamid al-Bayati of the powerful Tehran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
Although it holds considerable influence over a large segment of Iraq's Shi'ites, SCIRI is also religiously and philosophically tied to Iran, making it less palatable to the United States. SCIRI officials say their organization was ignored by the Department of Defense until last week.
The Pentagon instead has openly worked with Shi'ite exile leader Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress. But since Mr. Chalabi was airlifted by U.S. forces to southern Iraq, critics have said he lacks support in the country, and clerics are beginning to paint him as an instrument of the "unbelievers."
"There is a lot of bridge building that has to be done there," cautioned Rajan Menon, an international affairs analyst with the Council of Foreign Relations.
"SCIRI has to be brought on board and as part of that settlement, it has to be recognized that its best ties are not with the United States but with Iran."
Clerics such as SCIRI representative Abdulaziz al-Hakim, younger brother of the organization's leader, Sayyid Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, will be using the highly charged Karbala pilgrimage to speak to the faithful at mosques throughout the city.
"I would think that he will speak on Iraq choosing its own government, the importance of freedom and independence for Iraqis," said SCIRI's London-based spokesman, Hamid al-Bayati.
Thousands of Shi'ites marched on a U.S.-sponsored meeting of local and exile Iraqi leaders in the southern town of Nasiriyah last week, demanding that the United States leave Iraq and let Iraqis run their own country.
Iraqi dissatisfaction with the power vacuum in Baghdad and concern that the United States has no clear timetable to leave Iraq also are likely to come to an emotional head in Karbala.
"The message that President Bush gives to the Americans, to prepare for a long-term stay in Iraq, is truth telling. But when that message is heard by Iraqis, it ratchets up the fear of American domination," explained Mr. Menon.
Forbidden under Saddam Hussein, the Shi'ite gathering in Karbala today and tomorrow is enormously significant: It marks the death of the prophet Muhammad's grandson Imam Hussein, who was killed in Karbala in 680 A.D. by forces faithful to Caliph Muawiyah, a leading figure of the rival Sunni Muslims.
The pilgrimage, therefore, deals with the notions of martyrdom and the usurpation of power that still reverberate in the Shi'ite community today.
The Shi'ites, who constitute an absolute majority in both Iraq and Iran, were brutally repressed by Saddam, himself a Sunni.
"Under conditions like this, with a government displaced and everyone running around trying to decide what's next there will be sermons and [people] using the occasion to make a political point," said Mr. Menon.
The United States has the task of trying to find Iraqi leaders with whom they feel comfortable but who also are legitimate within the eyes of the Shi'ites, who make up 60 percent of the country's population, the Sunnis, and with ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq.

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