With the fall of Hussein's government, Shi'ites were able once again to make pilgrimage to Kerbala. Over 500,000 Iraqis from all over the country converged on this holy city in southern Iraq. Many slashed their scalps or whipped themselves with floggers and chains to commemerate the death of the Prophet's grandson. Many others chanted anti-American slogans. As a post-Sadaam Iraq struggles to redefine itself, its Shi'a majority will play an increasingly important - and problematic - role in that process.
Following Muhammed's death in 632, the Islamic world was split between those who followed Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet's companions, and those who supported the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law Ali - the Shi'at Ali, or Party of Ali. Tensions between these two groups would continue after Ali's assassination in 661 and the subsequent massacre of his son Husayn at the battle of Kerbala. Today the Shi'ites are still seen as schismatics and viewed with mistrust by Sunni Moslems: although they make up a majority of Iraq's population, they have long been ruled under and subject to persecution and oppression by Sunni leaders.
After the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq's Shi'ites were among the first to rebel. They heard George Bush's call for the Iraqis to "liberate themselves," and, in anticipation of American support, lynched scores of government loyalists and took over the Shi'ite holy city of Kerbala and over a dozen other cities in southern Iraq. Unfortunately, that American support never arrived. Ultimately the Allies declared another "no-fly" zone in the south to protect the Shi'ites, but it was too little, and too late, for an estimated 100,000 Shi'ite rebels and civilians murdered by Hussein's Republican Guard. These events have not been forgotten by Iraq's Shi'ites. While they may have welcomed the Americans as liberators, they do not trust us. There are many Shi'ite rebels who spent decades engaged in low-level guerrilla warfare against Hussein and his forces; they could easily turn those skills against occupying American troops if they were so inclined.
In Sunni Islam the Iman fulfills the role of prayer leader; in Shi'a Islam the Iman is seen as a metaphysical being, without sin and infallible. The last Imam, the Mahdi, is believed not to have died but to be in hiding and will appear at the end of time in order to bring about the victory of the Shi'a faith. While the Shi'ites of Iran await the Madhi's return, they have turned the reins of power over to the Ayatollahs, clerics who function as both religious and political leaders. Many scholars consider Khomeni's concept of the "Islamic Republic" to be one of the most important developments in modern Islamic history: at the very least, Iran is the first Shi'ite-ruled government since the fall of the Fatimid Caliphate in 1171. The Ayatollahs have sought to export this revolution to other countries with substantial Shi'ite populations - including Iraq.
Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, Teheran-based head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, controls a militia of over 10,000 soldiers and was personally chosen by Khomeni to head an "Islamic Republic of Iraq." SCIRI sat out U.S.-organized talks on Iraq's future, with al-Hakim claiming "we refuse to put ourselves under the thumb of the Americans or any other country." The Iranians have publicly denied any involvement in postwar Iraq, and have pooh-poohed U.S. warnings and saber-rattling. Few doubt that Iran's Ayatollahs would welcome an Islamic Revolution and Shi'ite-ruled fundamentalist government in Iraq. At the very least, it would help to cement their tenuous grasp on power and to quell the growing push toward secularism among Iranian youth. So far most American scenarios for a postwar Iraq are aimed at avoiding a fundamentalist revolutionů but history is what happens when you are busy making other plans.
A unified Shi'ite Iraq may be frightening; a fragmented Shi'a Iraq may prove worse. Already the widespread looting and anarchy has led to sectarian violence between rival Shi'a groups. Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a cleric who numbered Tony Blair among his friends and who was known to have close ties to Washington, was hacked to death in April after trying to come between squabbling Shia groups in the Grand Ali Mosque. There is also a very real possibility of violence against the long-dominant Sunni minority: efforts to stop this civil war would almost invariably be seen as "pro-Sunni" and thereby involve the American troops in fighting with the population they just liberated.