- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 9, 2005

With the vote on an Iraqi constitution just five days away, a considerable amount of press attention (and that of U.S. diplomacy) has focused on winning the support of Iraqi Sunnis, who compromise roughly 20 percent of the population and are the backbone of that nation’s terrorist insurgency. The current challenge, among the most difficult ones that Washington faces in Iraq, is to do this in a manner that does not alienate Iraqi Shi’ites, who make up 60 percent of the population and are the target of a campaign by Iran’s Shi’ite dictatorship to prevent creation of a democracy next door. Since the U.S.-led coalition liberated Iraq two and a half years ago, perhaps no single person in that country has played a more constructive, positive role than Sheikh Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the top Shi’ite cleric in the country. It would be disastrous if, in an effort to get Sunni elements to stop backing terror, coalition diplomats were to alienate Sheikh Sistani.

At one level, it is entirely understandable and necessary that Washington attempt to persuade Iraqi Sunnis, who had been Saddam Hussein’s strongest supporters and beneficiaries of his tyranny, not to sabotage the creation of a democratic Iraq. This minority group largely boycotted Iraq’s first free elections that were held in January.

If Iraqi Shi’ites remain convinced that democracy is the best hope for their future and the Sunnis were to become willing and able to break with Abu Musab Zarqawi and the rest of the Islamofascists who are bent on destroying any possibility of freedom for Iraq, it would constitute a tremendous victory for the policies pursued by President Bush. To achieve such a victory and make it endure will require that Iraqi security forces be trained and equipped in sufficient numbers to protect Sunnis and Shi’ites alike from jihadist reprisals. Attempting short-cuts — like wooing recalcitrant Sunni politicians with back-channel promises of political rewards — will alienate the Shi’ite majority and send an unmistakable message that violence and blackmail can achieve positive results.

To be certain, given the reality that the Shi’ites were brutally mistreated by Saddam Hussein and stand to gain the most from the creation of representative government in Iraq, there is nothing particularly altruistic in their embrace of democracy. But there is much to admire nonetheless in the behavior of most Iraqi Shi’ites (the thuggish Mahdi Army led by Muqtada al-Sadr excepted) since Saddam’s ouster. Unfortunately, this is often obscured in powerful sectors of the mainstream media in this country, where hostility to Mr. Bush’s foreign policy runs deep. It has become fashionable to caricature Iraqi Shi’ites as backward medievalists who are nothing more than puppets of Tehran. The premise is false, and basing U.S. policy on it could have disastrous consequences.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, described a recent visit to the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, where he had the opportunity to meet with many of Sheikh Sistani’s Shi’ite disciples. Time and again, these men said that they had no desire to emulate revolutionary Iran. Mr. Gerecht contrasts Ayatollah Khomeini’s political vision (in which God is the sole legislator, and government, run by learned religious men, is required to implement God’s plan in this world), with Sheikh Sistani’s political vision, which is remarkably secularized. While Sheikh Sistani is no liberal in the Western sense, Mr. Gerecht makes a solid case that his writings and those of clergymen aligned with him suggest that he is inverting Muslim doctrine “into a defense of political liberty.”

Somemayargue nonetheless that all of this is merely spin, and that the positive-sounding rhetoric is meant to conceal some darker intention to subvert Iraq on behalf of the mullahs in Tehran. While there is of course no way to tell how Iraqi Shi’ites will behave in the future, the reality is that following Sheikh Sistani’s example, most Shi’ites have played a very constructive role in post-Saddam Iraq. Sheikh Sistani, for example, has kept the dangerous al-Sadr largely in check since clashes with U.S. forces last year. And the Shi’ites — who have born the brunt of Zarqawi’s terrorist savagery — have shown extraordinary restraint and have by and large refrained from reprisals in kind.

Many Iraqi Shi’ites say that the worst thing that the United States can do would be to abandon Iraq before competent Iraqi security forces are in place to protect the people from the jihadists. Were the United States to abandon these people (who vividly remember the events of 1991, when Washington encouraged them to revolt, then stood by while they were slaughtered en masse by Saddam) then Iran would likely step in to fill the void by “protecting” Iraqi Shi’ites from Zarqawi, who has been a sometime Iranian ally. The end result of abandoning the Shi’ites would be a human catastrophe and a strategic disaster for the war against the jihadists.

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