- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2006

But if decisions are made unwisely in the days ahead, it may also examine another question: Did the U.S. look carefully enough before leaving the war in Iraq?

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), visited President Bush at the White House last week. The visit was likely part of the follow-up to a memo that National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley sent to Mr. Bush in late November, which suggested the president push Mr. al-Hakim to throw his party’s support behind Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to help Mr. al-Maliki build a new political base independent from Shi’ite warlord Muqtada al-Sadr.

That we must hope for Mr. al-Hakim to play this role is emblematic of the dilemma we face — and makes a review of some recent history timely. There was a time when a certain leader vowed that Iraq’s “evil Ba’athist leaders” would be consigned “to the dustbin of history.”

It was not 2003, but 1980. The leader was Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He believed Iraqi Shi’ite clergymen, who had been his colleagues when he lived in exile in Najaf, Iraq, were primed to spark an Islamic revolution against Saddam Hussein.

These Iraqi clergymen were not Khomeini’s seedlings. They were parallel branches rising from the same root and trunk of Shi’ite revolutionary thinking that produced Khomeini. Two Iraqi Shi’ite clans prominent in this movement were the al-Sadrs and the al-Hakims.

In “The Islamic Movement of Iraqi Shi’as,” in 1992, Professor Joyce Wiley of the University of South Carolina outlined the role of these families in the rise of Iraqi Islamism.

In the late 1950s, about the time Iraq’s military overthrew Iraq’s Sunni monarchy, a young Shi’ite clergyman named Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr began a movement called Hizb al-Dawa al-Islamiya (Party of the Call to Islam). It was designed to provide a religiously based Islamic political alternative to secular Arab nationalism and atheistic communism.

Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim, then Iraq’s preeminent Shi’ite cleric, supported al-Sadr’s movement, as did many of al-Hakim’s multitudinous sons. When al-Hakim died in 1970, al-Sadr became an ayatollah and inherited much of al-Hakim’s religious following.

After Iran declared an Islamic Republic under Khomeini in 1979, Saddam put al-Sadr under house arrest in Iraq. “From his confinement,” writes Wiley, “Ayatollah al-Sadr issued a fatwa declaring that believing Muslims were obliged to struggle against the Ba’ath Party.”

In March 1980, Saddam declared membership in Dawa a capital offense, and executed 96 members. In April, he hanged not only Ayatollah al-Sadr, but also his sister Bint al-Huda, leader of a Shi’ite women’s movement.

The Dawa went into exile in Iran, and, in September 1980 Saddam pre-emptively invaded that country, in what he mistakenly thought would be a quick campaign to grab territory and end government by the ayatollahs. In 1982, as the war continued, SCIRI was founded by Iraqi exiles in Iran. Its leader was Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, a son of the late Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim. Muhammad’s brother, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, became leader of SCIRI’s militia, the Badr Brigade.

According to SCIRI’s Web site, Saddam retaliated against the al-Hakims by arresting 125 family members and executing 18.

When Iraq’s first post-Saddam democratic government was finally formed this year, Nouri al-Maliki became prime minister. He is a member of Dawa. Warlord Muqtada al-Sadr leads a bloc in Mr. al-Maliki’s coalition. He is a cousin of the late Ayatollah al-Sadr. After Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim was killed by a car bomb in 2003, his brother Abdul Aziz al-Hakim became leader of SCIRI, now the largest single party in Iraq’s parliament.

SCIRI retains its Badr Brigades. Muqtada al-Sadr has his Mahdi Army. Both militias are backed by Iran. Both are reportedly responsible for sectarian murders and violence.

Sunni-governed Arab states — seeing the obvious potential for radicalized Iraqi Shi’ites to extract a payback for Saddam’s brutal bloodletting while securing their long-sought Islamic republic — have fretted that if U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq before political stability can be established, a Sunni-Shi’ite conflict could ensue that goes beyond the borders of Iraq.

The report of the Iraq Study Group points to exactly this potential consequence of failure in Iraq. “Ambassadors from neighboring countries told us that they fear the distinct possibility of Sunni-Shia clashes across the Islamic world. Many expressed a fear of Shia insurrections — perhaps fomented by Iran — in Sunni-ruled states,” said the report. “Such a broader sectarian conflict could open a Pandora’s box of problems — including the radicalization of populations, mass movements of populations, and regime changes — that might take decades to play out.”

The dream of establishing democracies throughout the Middle East, beginning in Baghdad, must now give way to taking whatever practical and morally defensible steps offer the best likelihood of protecting our interests there while preserving our security here.

Terence Jeffrey is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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