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Thursday, April 8

Warring Shiites imperil hope for stable government

By John Yaukey | GNS

KARBALA, Iraq - Clashes between U.S. forces and Iraq’s majority Shiites are threatening not only to plunge Iraq into chaos but to shatter the already shaky underpinnings for a democratic government and delay a homecoming for American troops.

Radicals have taken up arms in most major Shiite cities from Nasiriyah in the south to Baghdad. Many are fighting in the name of the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is trying to incite a Shiite rebellion against the U.S.-led occupation troops and ultimately establish a strict Islamic state.

``The future of Iraqis will depend on religious ethics and a fear of God,'' al-Sadr spokesman Sheik Hussein al-Gharib said in an interview before the uprising began last weekend. ``We will not allow outside armies to come here and decide our future for us.''

Despite the fierce fighting, the Bush administration wants the transfer of sovereignty from U.S. civil authorities to the Iraqis on June 30 to happen on schedule.

Indeed, Bush is adamant that the political process move forward.

But to what, ultimately?

What will rise from the chaos?

Administration officials have characterized al-Sadr and his estimated 6,000 to 10,000 supporters as a fringe group attempting a futile, but violent power grab.

But the attacks by Shiites, who comprise 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, represent a new theater of resistance, and an unanticipated threat to the political process.

The Sunni Arab rebellion west of Baghdad, while intensely violent, remains contained.

The Shiite uprising, however, has spread across the south, raising an extremely worrisome question: Is al-Sadr winning support from more moderate Shiites?

A substantial base of radicalized Shiites would pose enormous problems for the political process, especially in the upcoming elections in Iraq, which are scheduled for January, and the subsequent writing of a constitution.

Speaking to reporters in Karbala, Iraq on March 16, Sheik Hussein al-Gharib said, "The future of Iraqis will depend on religious ethics and a fear of God. We will not allow outside armies to come here and decide our future for us." He is affiliated with the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. (Jeff Franko | GNS)

Creating radicals

Perhaps the greatest danger in confronting the Shiite radicals is creating more of them.

By most indications, al-Sadr doesn't have broad support among Shiites.

Many of the street vendors and shoppers in Kadhimiya, a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad, nevertheless voice a growing frustration with the American-led occupation that al-Sadr is clearly trying to tap.

``We blame the Americans for what happened here,'' said Ismael Hatem, referring to the March 2 terrorist bombing of a nearby Shiite mosque. ``When will we see the better life the Americans have promised?''

An intense crackdown on al-Sadr's 3,000-man al-Mahdi militia, if botched, could further inflame Shiite anger against the American troops and the civil authorities who must carry the political process forward once the fighting ends.

That would play into al-Sadr's strategy to both draw support for his rebellion and dash U.S. hopes for democracy.

This is why American field commanders would like Iraqi security forces to spearhead the attack against al-Sadr's forces. But many of the Iraqi police that U.S. troops quickly trained have collapsed in the face of the militia attacks.

Now the job falls to the U.S.-led coalition's quick-reaction forces, which have stationed themselves around the more than half-dozen cities where rebellion has erupted.

The U.S. strategy has been to execute precisely targeted raids against al-Sadr's adherents, but to hold off on a major strike against the cleric, now believed to be holed up in a Shiite mosque under heavy guard.

That said, top Pentagon officials vowed Wednesday that al-Sadr would be taken and the rebellion will be quashed.

``This hope to stop progress for 25 million Iraqis - it's just not going to happen,'' said Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It's not clear where Iraq's most influential moderates stand.

Shiite political commentator Hamid al-Bayati speaks with reporters in his Baghdad home March 17. "We don't want an Islamic state," he said. "But we are striving for a democracy that recognizes the role of religion in the lives of the Iraqi people." (Jeff Franko | GNS)

Street sentiments

Ultimately, Bush envisions Iraq as a launch pad for democracy in the Arab Middle East.

But even without the uprising, U.S. authorities in Iraq face a major challenge in getting secular democracy to grow in a country where faith pervades virtually every aspect of life.

Some Iraqis favor a secular government, but many insist on an Islamic state.

Hard-core elements want a constitution based on Sharia, or strict Islamic law, which is unacceptable to the Bush administration.

Iraq's Shiites, who are often compared to strict Catholics in the intensity and rigid structure of their faith, are among the most devout of Iraq's Muslims. Decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein, who killed thousands of Shiites and banned large Shiite gatherings, have built up a determination among many to keep faith in all aspects of life.

Indeed, it's often the intellectual elite who argue for secular government.

But they are roundly mocked on the street, which is no small problem as the U.S. authorities look to establish credible democratic leadership in the Shiite community.

The Shiite street, and indeed many of the Muslims in Iraq interviewed, cannot conceive of a legitimate authority not grounded in Islam.

"We will not see a government separate from the mosque," said Karbala resident Fadhil Abas Muslim. "We cannot function that way. There is nothing in our lives that is separate from God. How can our government be without God?''

Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani espouses the views from the Shiite school of ``quietism,'' which advocates a separation of mosque and state. And yet he argues that Iraq's new government should not contradict Sharia.

``We don't want an Islamic state,'' said Hamid al-Bayati, a leading Shiite political commentator. ``But we are striving for a democracy that recognizes the role of religion in the lives of the Iraqi people.''

Once the fighting stops, the civil authorities in Iraq will face the challenge of walking that tightrope.