T he recent rallies held by Shiite Muslims led by
Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani could
presage the most serious problems yet for the troubled U.S. occupation of Iraq. If the situation is not handled deftly, the nightmare everybody fears but would rather not talk about — full-scale civil war — could become a reality.
The highly unstable situation is rooted in demography and history: Iraq was cobbled together by British colonial administrators following World War I, meaning the boundaries are not the result of growth, conquest or land purchases, but artificially drawn, as it happens, around very distinct and separate groups.
Saddam Hussein’s regime was dominated by Sunni Muslims, and more narrowly by related clans centered around Saddam’s home town of Tikrit. Sunnis, who live mostly in the central part of the country, make up about 20 percent of the population, and under Saddam, they made out better than most when it came to receiving reliable electricity, jobs and services.
The Kurds (Muslim but not Arab) in the north account for another 20 percent.
Shiite Muslims account for about 60 percent of the population, and they suffered serious oppression under Saddam. Most of the mass graves that have been found are those of Shiites who rose up in an attempt to topple Saddam, in response to a call from President Bush’s father after the first gulf war, and were slaughtered by Saddam’s troops.
One more factor: There is oil in the south and the north, but not in the central part of the country.
The Shiites, who are well organized, have until recently been relatively cooperative with coalition occupation forces. All and sundry have talked about democratization, and the Shiites have figured their day would come when elections were held, given their natural majority. Few experts know for sure whether they would really seek to establish an Islamic theocratic state similar to neighboring (and Shiite-ruled) Iran. But that possibility is there.
The irony facing the United States, then, is that a genuinely democratic Iraq might turn out to be an Islamic-ruled state like Iran. One can understand a certain reluctance to hold elections before titular sovereignty is handed over at the end of June. U.S. proconsul Paul Bremer has proposed an 18-region series of caucuses or handing over power to the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.
Ayatollah Sistani has called out the crowds — as many as 100,000 on Monday — to demand elections before the handover. The United States has called in U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to certify that holding elections too soon is not workable, and to assume more responsibility for the transition.
As Joseph Cirincione, whose specialty at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is weapons proliferation, said, however, “I don’t see how the administration can win this argument.” Too many U.S. officials have said too much about how the goal is a functioning democracy.
A democratic Iraq without the cooperation and assent of the Shiites and Kurds is simply impossible. But both groups want more than the United States seems willing to give — at least for now.
The Cato Institute’s vice president for defense and foreign policy studies, Ted Carpenter, said, “A U.N. approach might work as a Band-Aid, but the three groups have very different goals.” A government that doesn’t accommodate minority interests would face revolt or possibly civil war. A partition of the country into three sections would be messy — and probably bloody — since there is a fair amount of intermingling.
These problems could be postponed as long as the Shiites were willing to bide their time. However, they don’t seem willing to do so any longer.
The result could be a complete unraveling of the American vision of a democratic — or even modestly stable — Iraq.