Wednesday, January 26, 2005

As Shiites inherit Iraq, the Arab world trembles

By David Hirst
Special to The Daily Star
Thursday, January 27, 2005

For the first time in centuries, Iraq's Shiites are about to come into their own as the rulers, or at least the politically dominant community, in a key Arab country. In principle, the Iraqi elections will effectively ratify, and lend constitutional legitimacy to, a transformation that has been inexorably under way since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

In much of the Arab world, rulers have traditionally hailed from the Sunni community. Until now that has included two countries, Iraq and Bahrain, where Shiites are a majority. The correction of this anomaly cannot but be momentous, given Iraq's history and geopolitical weight, and the tumultuous conditions, regional and international, in which it is taking place.

Iraq, after all, is where, in the bloody struggle over the Prophet Mohammed's succession, Islam's great schism first took root; where for centuries Shiites under Sunni Ottoman rule bore the brunt of the empire's conflicts with Shiite Persian empires; where in the 1920s Shiites led the rebellion against British mandatory rule, but ended up grossly under-represented in the Sunni-dominated, modern Iraqi state that Britain created; where, after the 1958 overthrow of the monarchy and the rise of Baathism, the Sunnis turned minority rule into despotism of the most narrow, chauvinistic and brutal kind at the Shiites' expense.

The idea of electorally established Shiite dominance of Iraq deeply troubles Arab regimes, whether pro- or anti-American, Republican or monarchical, with or without Shiites among their populations. Jordan's King Abdullah II has most publicly declared what others keep to themselves. For him the great peril is Iran, which apart from Azerbaijan is the world's only Shiite-majority state that is also Shiite-ruled. Its "vested interest," the king says, is "to have an Islamic republic of Iraq; if that happened, we've opened ourselves to a whole set of new problems that won't be limited to the borders of Iraq." He warned of a Shiite "crescent" with dominant Shiite movements and governments stretching from Iran into Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, destabilizing Gulf countries and posing a challenge to the U.S.

"This is the first time," observed Joseph Samaha, editor of the Beirut daily Al-Safir, that "an Arab official has used such crude, direct and dangerous language to publicly incite against a particular confession and warn that it may turn into a fifth column to be used against the majority."

For other commentators, what such remarks indicate, at bottom, is fear of democracy and the prospect that Iraq will now demonstrate what Palestine already has - that in the Arab world people have more electoral choice if they are occupied than if they are sovereign.

"They are terrified," noted Salama Neemat, Washington correspondent of the daily Al- Hayat, "lest elections prove contagious and spread to Iraq's neighboring states and peoples. The danger to certain Arab governments, whose [anti- Shiite sectarian] position has become almost identical to that of [Osama] bin Laden and [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi, is not the alleged 'Shiite crescent', or a theocratic and religious 'non- Arab' government in Iraq, but the democratic 'weapon of mass destruction' that could destroy the structure of tyranny and backwardness that weighs heavily upon the chests of their peoples."

Arab regimes with Shiite citizens perhaps have the most grounds for alarm, because, like Saddam, they have in varying degrees discriminated against them. The quest for equal rights has been a purpose common to Shiites in every modern Arab state. Only in Lebanon, through civil war as well as the country's unique, confessionally organized political system, have they basically achieved them.

"Iraq could represent a democratic model for the Arab-Muslim world, which has experienced futile and utopian conflicts for 14 centuries," remarked Sheikh Ali Salman, a Shiite leader in Bahrain; though Shiites constitute 60 percent of the island's population, they don't apparently aim for an Iraqi-style change of regime; only for greater representation than (despite recent improvements) what they have won so far.

Shiites are even worse off in Saudi Arabia. They make up less than 10 percent of the total population, but a majority is located in the oil-rich eastern province. They are still regarded in the kingdom as heretics by a fiercely orthodox Wahhabi clerical establishment.

Iraqi Shiite emancipation is also disturbing to a small and fragile Jordan that is deeply affected by political upheavals and ideological currents in its far more powerful neighboring countries. Moreover, King Abdullah's relatively benign autocracy does depend on discrimination of a kind, in favor of a conservative, tribal-minded Transjordanian minority vis-ˆ-vis the more advanced and dynamic Palestinian majority. In multi-confessional Syria, a Shiite triumph in Iraq might, paradoxically, encourage the majority Sunnis to regain the ascendancy over power that - to the exact opposite of their coreligionists in Iraq - they lost with the rise of Baathism.

It is obvious that all these regimes, like the Iraq insurgents themselves, hanker after a restoration of the old Sunni- or Baathist-dominated order, or even some Saddam-like figure to preside over it; or, at least, as King Abdullah once put it, "somebody with a military background who has experience of being a tough guy."

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