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Thursday, Sept. 11, 2003 02:20 pm

Civil war brewing?


One of the most consistent and ominous prewar warnings to the Bush administration by Middle East experts was that removal of Saddam Hussein without the most careful political and social engineering would result in the breaking apart of Iraq into warring factions that would battle each other for decades.

The hawks in the White House would not listen. They were so wedded to the fantasy that the removal of Saddam--in an act of "creative destruction"--would result in the automatic emergence of democracy. They brushed aside all warnings.

Present-day Iraq was once three provinces of the Ottoman Empire before World War I. It was cobbled together by the British for their own convenience after that conflict. The British installed a king--the Saudi Arabian son of the chief religious official of Mecca (Faisal, of Lawrence of Arabia Fame)--and glued the whole mess together with the resident British Army.

The three regions were incompatible in ethnicity, religious persuasion, and interests. The Sunni Muslim Kurds occupied the north. The Sunni Arab Bedouins occupied the center and southwest. The Shia Arab and Persian populations occupied the south and southeast. Of the three groups, the Shia were largest--about 60 percent of the population. With oil, an outlet to the Persian Gulf, and good agricultural land, they would be the natural dominant force in the state the British created. The Kurds would be important too, because they lived in the region of the country with the largest oil reserves.

But the British picked the Sunni Arabs, the smallest faction of the population. They wanted to reward Saudi Arabians for helping them in the fight against the Ottomans, and to assuage existing clients in the sheikhs, who ruled the Arab states of the Gulf.

When the British were finally expelled--and their Saudi ruling family deposed in Iraq in a 1958 nationalist coup--the new Baathist Iraqi nationalist rulers had a supremely unruly nation on their hands. The only way to keep power in Sunni Arab hands--and away from the Shiites--was through ruthless dictatorship and oppression. Saddam Hussein was the supreme master of this political strategy.

Ayatollah al-Hakim's family was victimized by this oppression. Virtually every one of the Ayatollah's male relatives was executed by Saddam's regime. He fled to Iran for years of exile, returning only after Saddam was deposed by the United States. He became one of the principal leaders of the Shia community, and a symbol of rising Shia power in postwar Iraq. His triumphant return to Iraq and the holy city of Najaf was one of the most celebrated events in recent Iraqi history.

It is still not known who set off the explosion that killed him at the shrine of Ali, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. It could have been Sunni Arab factions who fear the rise of Shia dominance in Iraq, or it could have been his own Shia supporters, disappointed with him for cooperating with American policies in Iraq. Or it could have been someone else. What is clear is that his death will now forever be a rallying cry for the Shiite community against its enemies.

It is notable that in Shiism virtually all significant leaders have been "martyred." Of the 12 historical Imams of the Ithnaashara branch of Shiism dominant in Iraq and Iran (Ithnaashara means "twelve" in Arabic), ten are buried in shrines in Iraq. Their tombs are ever-present reminders of the oppression and struggle of the Shia. Now Ayatollah al-Hakim will join them and, with the power of a saint, will inspire generations of grimly dedicated young warriors, determined to wreak vengeance and assert the power of their community. They will be led by his own paramilitary group, the Badr Brigade.

Shia fury will be directed at the Sunnis to the north. It will also be directed toward the United States as the occupying force who both did nothing to prevent this tragedy--and further continued the British doctrine of Sunni favoritism by insisting that the Shia religious leaders would never be allowed to come to power. The forces of retribution are about to be unleashed in a manner hitherto unseen in the region.

Could the United States have done anything to prevent this tragedy? Of course it could have. As the occupying power U.S. officials knew acutely about the danger to Ayatollah al-Hakim. Since Washington opposed the rise of Shia power in Iraq, charges of American indifference or even complicity in his death will soon be flying.

The final question the U.S. must now face is, How to stop this inevitable civil war? When the factional shooting starts, where does the U.S. army, caught in the crossfire, aim its own guns?

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