- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003

BAGHDAD — Long before U.S.-led coalition forces entered Iraq, one of their first concerns was how Iraq’s Shi’ite majority would react to their presence, how combative Shi’ite religious leaders would be, and how much of a destabilizing role neighboring Iran would play.

The answers to some of these questions are starting to become clear.

Shi’ites, making up about 60 percent of Iraq’s population, were politically and economically sidelined during Saddam Hussein’s 24-year rule.

L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, says the Shi’ites now will have a larger role to play. But increased participation is not the nexus of the U.S. concern.

What worries Washington is that the Shi’ites may try to use their majority and centuries-old tradition of following religious leaders in Najaf, the world’s center for Shi’ite theological teaching, to subvert efforts for a democratic system in Iraq.

So far, signs are pointing in the opposite direction.

The Shi’ites have not turned out to be the main problem. Nearly all attacks against U.S. forces have occurred in areas that are controlled by Sunni Muslims and have been under the strong influence of Saddam Hussein and his cronies.

Shi’ite leaders say they intend to give the coalition a chance to deliver on its promises and do not plan to confront U.S. and British military forces.

“We took a position some time ago that we will not pursue the path of armed confrontation with the coalition forces and have been trying to push these forces, which are occupying forces, from Iraq through peaceful means and constructive dialogue,” said Abdel Aziz Hakim. He is a younger brother of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), who has spent more than two decades as an exile in Iran before returning to Iraq in April.

Ayatollah Hakim was expected to remain allied to Tehran and to try to establish an Iranian-style Islamist republic in Iraq.

Since his return, however, Ayatollah Hakim has remained mostly in Najaf. A close adviser said daily political operations in Baghdad now are headed by Abdel Aziz Hakim. The brothers have said repeatedly that they want to work with other Iraqi groups, and that establishing an Islamist republic modeled after Iran is not their goal.

“Ayatollah Hakim had a religious role in Najaf before he was forced to leave the country. Now that he is back, his natural place is in Najaf and his role there would be to concentrate on religious affairs. Daily political decisions will be made by Abdel Aziz Hakim, who — in addition to being his brother — is the deputy leader of SCIRI,” said the adviser, Abdel Hamed Bayati.

What remains to be seen — and what could surprise U.S. officials — is the role of the other senior Shi’ite leader in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

Long under house arrest during Saddam’s reign, Ayatollah Sistani is considered a moderate who believes in separation of religion and politics and does not advocate direct interference by religious leaders in daily political life.

But last week he issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling Mr. Bremer’s plans “unacceptable.”

Mr. Bremer this summer plans to nominate members of a council to write a draft of Iraq’s new constitution, which will be put to a vote before the Iraqi people.

In his fatwa, the Ayatollah Sistani said, “The [occupation] authorities are not entitled to nominate the members of the assembly charged with drafting the constitution. … There is no guarantee that such a convention would draft a constitution upholding the Iraqi people’s interests and expressing their national identity, based on Islam and lofty social values.”

Mr. Bremer rejected the charge, saying Iraqis would include what they wished in the draft.

“Ayatollah Sistani was oppressed during Saddam’s time, and some of the fact that he was not very outspoken can be attributed to that. Now that we are living in a new Iraq, where the Americans say they want to promote democracy, it would be the ayatollah’s right and our expectation to become more outspoken,” said an aide in his Najaf office who asked not to be named.

Even if religious leaders choose not to confront U.S. forces, some of their disciples may take matters into their own hands.

After an explosion destroyed part of a mosque compound in the city of Fallujah last week, U.S. forces and some residents in the area said the mosque contained a small storage of arms and explosives.

The U.S. forces blamed the stored explosives for the blast, while many mosque followers claimed a U.S. missile hit the compound.

Perhaps equally important to Mr. Bremer and policy-makers in Washington is the role of Iran and its ambitions in a country with which it fought a bloody eight-year war in the 1980s.

Iran officially has denied U.S. accusations that it is meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs, but a visit last month to the Iran-Iraq border post near Khaneqin could prove otherwise.

Ali Behbehani, an Iraqi Shi’ite who fled with his family to Iran in the 1980s and returned to Iraq last month, said religious leaders in Iran’s holy city of Qom were offering $200 to $300 to Iraqi students at the International Center for Islamic Studies who agreed to return home and preach Islam for a period of six to nine weeks.

“After that, we can either return to Qom or continue to live in Iraq and earn our living,” Mr. Behbehani said.

He said the Qom center has some 500 Iraqi students and about 2,000 students from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Europe and the United States.

It is not clear whether the Qom center has offered similar return programs for other countries.

“Basically, a ‘Shi’ite factor’ was a definitive concern in the beginning. But, right now, it has become more of wild card. How will it play out? It depends as much on what the Americans do as on what they don’t do,” said a U.S. official here, referring to whether the Bremer team will try to involve the Shi’ite religious leaders in the country’s political dialogue and meet some of their demands, or sideline them as Saddam had done.

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