The United States went to war with Iraq for reasons of its own national security. Its motives were remote from Islam’s basic schism, between the majority Sunni, who constitute 90 percent of the world’s Muslims, and the minority Shiite. Yet given that Saddam Hussein’s regime represented a brutal Sunni Arab dictatorship in a country that is majority Shiite, the results of overthrowing Saddam were bound to have a profound effect on that sectarian rift. America could not possibly replace one vicious Sunni tyranny with another Sunni Arab dictatorship.
For Iraq’s Shiite, this means that for the first time since the founding of the state political dominance is within their reach. That is a heady sentiment, of course. In addition, Najaf, the Shiites’ holiest city, is for all practical purposes under Shiite political control for the first time in 500 years. The world’s Shiite are making the pilgrimage to their most important religious shrines, for the first time in decades if not centuries free to perform their rituals without any external constraint whatsoever.
Developments in Iraq have, not surprisingly, spurred something of a Shiite awakening. Yet the Shiites’ historical experience and deeply ingrained memory is one of persecution and repression. They view the situation in Iraq hopefully, even as they apprehend, not without reason, that international and Arab machinations will deny them the prize that appears within their grasp.
It turns out that Saudi Arabia, the homeland par excellence of Sunni militancy, actively supported the United States’ war to overthrow Saddam, as Bob Woodward’s newly published Plan of Attack reveals. The Saudi view of Saddam was not so different from that of the American president.
Yet neither the Saudi regime nor any Arab government wants to see a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq. Sunni regimes, including Egypt and Jordan, view the Shiite as a stalking horse for Iran and Islamic radicalism. To some senior US officials this looks like an ancient religious prejudice dressed up in contemporary garb. It does not take into account the variety of Shiite perspectives, nor the large Shiite middle class in Iraq. However, this hostile view is shared by many in the bureaucracies who work on the Middle East, the so-called "Arabists."
In significant respects, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has been quite accommodating of Iraq’s Sunnis. Its favored political figure is the octogenarian former foreign minister and Sunni Arab nationalist, Adnan Pachachi, who sat next to Laura Bush during the president’s State of the Union speech, a high-profile presence at a prominent event.
Thus, while the Shiite are grateful for America’s overthrow of Saddam, they also harbor suspicions that the United States will return the Sunni Arabs to power. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani rejected the initial CPA plan for local caucuses (susceptible to manipulation by US authorities) and demanded elections to determine an interim government for Iraq. The caucus plan was quickly scrapped, but America’s turn to the United Nations is viewed with nearly equal suspicion by Shiite leaders. The United Nations-administered "oil for food" program was an enormous scandal, the dimensions of which are only starting to emerge. This includes the charge that senior UN officials were bribed by the Iraqi regime and allowed some $10 billion to be diverted to that regime for illicit purposes.
Moreover, the UN’s special envoy on Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, is the epitome of all that the Shiite mistrust in Arab politics. They apprehend that the caretaker government Brahimi is to appoint will not, in fact, hold fair and free elections in January 2005 as scheduled.
The Shiite, inside and outside of Iraq, are closely watching these developments. Already they have stirred the sentiment among Shiite in other Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, that they too deserve greater political rights. However, it is noteworthy that no unrest, or even significant political protest, has occurred.
The Saudi government is divided as to how to deal with Saudi Shiite, who are concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province (known as al Hasa before the Saudi conquest of the region in 1913). So far the line of Crown Prince Abdullah appears to be prevailing. Abdullah favors a more inclusive posture towards the Shiite; the interior minister, Prince Nayif, reflects the Wahhabi orientation of Saudi intelligence and favors a harsher line. The Saudi government has initiated a slight opening toward them, allowing more open Shiite religious practice and, perhaps, more participation in the National Guard, but one would be hard-pressed to find a Shiite mosque in the entire country.
In Bahrain, where the Shiite are a majority (at least 70 percent) the ruling family has been moving for some time in the direction of remaking itself into a constitutional monarchy. Developments in Iraq are only accelerating that process.
Kuwait has a substantial Shiite minority, perhaps 30 percent of the population. According to Americans who have sat in on the Shiite diwaniyas, Kuwaiti Shiite are asking themselves questions like, why can’t I be more openly Shiite? Why can’t we participate fully in Kuwaiti politics?
Not least, the future of Iraq has great potential consequence for Iran. Iranians of all political stripes wanted Saddam gone, of course. The hardliners now seek to spoil the US-backed endeavor to create a democratic Iraq and are funding the clerical firebrand, Muqtada al Sadr. Figures like President Mohammed Khatami and the dissident cleric and one-time heir to Khomeini, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, support Sistani and even the (American-created) Iraqi Governing Council. A reasonably democratic Iraq would, in their eyes, have a positive effect in Iran. An unstable Iraq, including the rise to prominence of al Sadr, would reinforce the position of their own hardliners.
The situation in Iraq is unsettled. The clearest present challenge to Arab regimes is the violence of their own Sunni militants. For the Saudis, this is particularly ironic, as these militants are driven by the very ideology the Saudi regime promoted in order to avoid having to share power. Yet if a future Iraqi government can be created that is reasonably stable and representative, at least by the region’s low standards, it will mean a Shiite renaissance, with far-reaching implications for the Middle East.