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Wednesday, April 7

Majority Shiites can make or break U.S. plans in Iraq

By John Yaukey | GNS

KARBALA, Iraq - With the recent bloody revolt, Iraq's Shiites have emerged as the most dangerous threat to U.S. authorities struggling to stabilize Iraq and eventually get American troops out.

So far, attacks on U.S. forces and Iraqi police have been carried out by the mostly impoverished followers of the young radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, well known in Iraq for his anti-American screeds.

But if al-Sadr's opposition to the American presence in Iraq finds traction among a wider population, the U.S.-led forces in Iraq could find themselves confronting a full-blown Shiite rebellion.  Indeed, the spread of sporadic fighting to half a dozen Shiite cities across southern Iraq has raised that specter even higher.

The Shiites are so dangerous because they hold most of the trump cards.

They comprise 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people. Their powerful leadership can fill streets with rage on a single decree. Their militias are well armed, organized and ready for action.

What's more, the prospect of self-rule after 14 centuries of often-brutal political and religious oppression has infused the Shiites with a sense that their historic moment of self-determination has arrived.

"Our situation now is a test from God, but the Shiites are used to fishing on troubled waters," said Sheik Methal al-Hasnawai, a prominent cleric in the holy city of Karbala. "God willing, we will succeed, and we will take our rightful place here in Iraq."

That place is of great interest to the American civil and military authorities here because without Shiite cooperation they can't hope to execute a transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis on June 30 and set in motion an eventual exit strategy.

The Shiite uprising, which threatens to draw significant support from nonviolent Iraqis now donating food and money to the cause, has prompted senior Pentagon officials to consider sending more forces to Iraq. President Bush has said he is standing firm on June 30, but some congressional leaders believe that he should consider postponing the transfer until Iraq has been stabilized.

The Shiites and the Americans are now inextricably bound in a tense relationship that will shape the future of Iraq and the U.S. presence there. And each side is extremely wary of the other.

Two clerics, two views

Iraq's Shiites are hardly homogeneous. That's evident in their two leading clerics.

One is elderly, moderate and reclusive.

The other is young, radical and explosive.

The white-bearded Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani and pugnacious finger-waving al-Sadr have come to personify the split in the Shiite community that U.S.-led occupation forces and civil authorities must now wrestle with.

For months, al-Sistani was the face of Iraqi Shiism to the West.

His ubiquitous poster portraits gazed out over Shiite mosques and neighborhoods. His decrees defined the mainstream Shiite position on an array of issues from the relationship between mosque and state to the role of women in a new Iraq.

``Iraq is at a very sensitive place right now,'' said Hussein Joward Kardum, a Shiite who lives south of Baghdad in Hillah. ``This is why so many of us turn to Ayatollah Sistani. He is wise.''

For reasons of security and piety, al-Sistani rarely leaves his home in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad.

From there he issues his widely revered decrees, often at the most awkward times for the U.S. authorities trying to keep Iraq on the path toward sovereignty.

No sooner had the Iraqi Governing Council, a temporary leadership committee now helping U.S. officials run Iraq, approved an interim constitution March 8, than al-Sistani balked at it. He claimed that it conceded too much political veto power to Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds. In other words, it didn't give the Shiites enough control.

Al-Sistani's critique of the interim constitution sparked student demonstrations, a spate of editorials highly critical of the political process and talk of Shiites boycotting it, a potentially debilitating blow for the U.S. exit plan.

But for all his vexing peculiarities, al-Sistani remains a steady, moderate influence U.S. officials have learned to deal with.

He claims to favor a separation of mosque and state and thus far has never incited any major violence.

Al-Sadr, as far as U.S. authorities are concerned, is simply a criminal awaiting arrest.

It's difficult to gauge al-Sadr's influence now beyond the rage he has unleashed.

Until he sparked the Shiite uprising by urging adherents to ``terrorize your enemy,'' al-Sadr was considered a raucous, but marginal player appealing to the anger in young Shiite men rather than the aspirations of the larger community.

Al-Sadr controls the 3,000-man Mahdi Army militia now attacking occupation forces and maintains a network of mosque-based offices in Shiite cities.

His staff insists that the Sadr organization is ultimately loyal to the established Shiite hierarchy.

``We abide by the leadership in Najaf,'' said Sheik Hussein al-Gharib, an al-Sadr representative in Karbala. ``If we have differences, they are minor.''

At times they clearly aren't.

Unlike al-Sistani, al-Sadr is adamant that Iraq must be a strict Islamic state.

His organization also claims to be opening Iraqi branches of the militant pro-Palestinian groups Hamas and Hezbollah, both considered terrorist organizations by the United States.

Al-Sistani has resisted commenting on the Palestinian situation.

Oppression and betrayal

The turbulence in the Shiite community stems from a tortured past, recent and distant.

On March 2, suicide bombers struck at shrines in Karbala and Baghdad during the Ashura, the holiest day in the Shiite calendar, killing more than 180 pilgrims worshipping there.

``This was devastating,'' said Juan Cole, an expert at the University of Michigan on Shiite affairs. ``It was the equivalent of bombs going off at the Vatican on Easter Sunday.''

In August, leading Shiite cleric Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim was killed in a mosque bombing in Najaf that claimed more than 100 lives.

These were the most recent episodes in a centuries-old saga of violence and oppression against the Shiites.

During his reign, Saddam Hussein had feared Iraq's Shiites and their numbers, so he routinely jailed and executed them and banned them from large religious gatherings.

In 1991, when the Shiites rose in a rebellion encouraged by the first President Bush, Saddam killed thousands of them and bombed the sacred shrine of Imam Hussein here in Karbala.

The colonial British suspected the Shiites of rebellious power plays, so they established enduring mechanisms for oppressing them.

For centuries, the Saudi Wahabis have despised the Shiites as apostates and periodically raided them.

Many Shiites believe that the Wahabis are behind the recent mosque bombings and that the American forces are powerless to protect them.

As security has eroded in Iraq's southern Shiite-dominated lands, the Shiite militias have become bolder, refusing to disarm despite firm requests from U.S. officials.

``Who will protect us? The Americans?'' said Hadi au Deed, a Shiite militia guard at a Baghdad mosque. ``They have failed.''

It's a potentially explosive mix for the Americans in Iraq: an increasingly volatile population flush with arms.