The Shia Will
By Robert Fisk
29 January, 2005
are about to inherit Iraq, but the election that will bring them to
power is creating deep fears among the Arab kings and dictators of the
Middle East that their Sunni leadership is under threat.
America has insisted
on these elections--which will produce a largely Shia parliament representing
Iraq's largest religious community--because they are supposed to provide
an exit strategy for embattled US forces, but they seem set to change
the geopolitical map of the Arab world in ways the Americans could never
have imagined. For George Bush and Tony Blair this is the law of unintended
consequences writ large.
Amid curfews, frontier
closures and country-wide travel restrictions, voting in Iraq will begin
tomorrow under the threat of Osama bin Laden's ruling that the poll
represents an "apostasy". Voting started among expatriate
Iraqis yesterday in Britain, the US, Sweden, Syria and other countries,
but the turnout was much smaller than expected.
The Americans have
talked up the possibility of massive bloodshed tomorrow and US intelligence
authorities have warned embassy staff in Baghdad that insurgents may
have been "saving up" suicide bombers for mass attacks on
But outside Iraq,
Arab leaders are talking of a Shia "Crescent" that will run
from Iran through Iraq to Lebanon via Syria, whose Alawite leadership
forms a branch of Shia Islam. The underdogs of the Middle East, repressed
under the Ottomans, the British and then the pro-Western dictators of
the region, will be a new and potent political force.
While Shia political
parties in Iraq have promised that they will not demand an Islamic republic--their
speeches suggest that they have no desire to recreate the Iranian revolution
in their country--their inevitable victory in an election that Iraq's
Sunnis will largely boycott mean that this country will become the first
Arab nation to be led by Shias.
On the surface,
this may not be apparent; Iyad Allawi, the former CIA agent and current
Shia "interim" Prime Minister, is widely tipped as the only
viable choice for the next prime minister--but the kings and emirs of
the Gulf are facing the prospect with trepidation.
In Bahrain, a Sunni
monarchy rules over a Shia majority that staged a mini-insurrection
in the 1990s. Saudi Arabia has long treated its Shia minority with suspicion
In the Arab world,
they say that God favoured the Shia with oil. Shias live above the richest
oil reserves in Saudi Arabia and upon some of the Kuwaiti oil fields.
Apart from Mosul, Iraqi Shias live almost exclusively amid their own
country's massive oil fields. Iran's oil wealth is controlled by the
country's overwhelming Shia majority.
What does all this
presage for the Sunni potentates of the Arabian peninsula? Iraq's new
national assembly and the next interim government it selects will empower
Shias throughout the region, inviting them to question why they too
cannot be given a fair share of their country's decision-making.
The Americans originally
feared that parliamentary elections in Iraq would create a Shia Islamic
republic and made inevitable--and unnecessary--warnings to Iran not
to interfere in Iraq. But now they are far more frightened that without
elections the 60 per cent Shia community would join the Sunni insurgency.
is thus, for the Americans, a means to an end, a way of claiming that--while
Iraq may not have become the stable, liberal democracy they claimed
they would create--it has started its journey on the way to Western-style
freedom and that American forces can leave.
Few in Iraq believe
that these elections will end the insurgency, let alone bring peace
and stability. By holding the poll now--when the Shias, who are not
fighting the Americans, are voting while the Sunnis, who are fighting
the Americans, are not--the elections can only sharpen the divisions
between the country's two largest communities.
had clearly not envisaged the results of its invasion in this way, its
demand for "democracy" is now moving the tectonic plates of
the Middle East in a new and uncertain direction. The Arab states outside
the Shia "Crescent" fear Shia political power even more than
they are frightened by genuine democracy.
No wonder, then,
King Abdullah of Jordan is warning that this could destabilise the Gulf
and pose a "challenge" to the United States. This may also
account for the tolerant attitude of Jordan towards the insurgency,
many of whose leaders freely cross the border with Iraq.
The American claim
that they move secretly from Syria into Iraq appears largely false;
the men who run the rebellion against US rule in Iraq are not likely
to smuggle themselves across the Syrian-Iraqi desert when they can travel
"legally" across the Jordanian border.
may be bloody. It may well produce a parliament so top-heavy with Shia
candidates that the Americans will be tempted to "top up"
the Sunni assembly members by choosing some of their own, who will inevitably
be accused of collaboration. But it will establish Shia power in Iraq--and
in the wider Arab world--for the first time since the great split between
Sunnis and Shias that followed the death of the Prophet Muhammad.
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