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The most likely of US Allies: Iraqi Shiites

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To say that "Shiites may be unlikely US allies" is to misunderstand the Shia, the subtleties of their religion, their national as well as religious aspirations, the gentle tarring of Shiites by generations of Arabist scholars (English long before American) who tilted to the 'ruling' Sunni view, and to remain blinded by the searing embassy hostage episode whose Khomeini descendents are what I believe to be more of an aberration rather than the rule of Shia behavior.

While I have long felt that US administrations, scholars, and populace had a frozen view of what they consider a monolithic group, a recent Washington Post article that I submit perpetuates these stereotypes while denying us significant maneuver opportunities requires a contrarian view. 

First demographics as destiny:

Shiites are 10 percent to 15 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. But almost half of Muslims from Lebanon to Pakistan are Shiites… If democratic openings widen, the United States may find its dealings with Shiite communities deepen. Often persecuted, Shiites have long challenged autocratic rule. Given current opportunities, some fall naturally into the role of agents of change. "For over 1,000 years, Shiites have been critical of political affairs in Muslim states. The Shiites have been encouraged recently to speak up and spell out injustices. They've now become really vocal about it."

The cradle of this Shia concentration is Iraq, not Iran, and the Iraqis, unlike the Persians of Iran, are Arab.

Second, Shia versus Sunni: With a few notable exceptions, the Shia have been subservient to Sunnis or powerful minorities such as Alawites, and deprived of political power. By accident of US policy, the Iraqi Shia see political power within their grasp and seem determined to reach accommodation with Kurd and Sunni, while placating US authorities, in order to retain it. (Do not be deceived by the Muqtada al Sadr group as the father was appointed by Saddam Hussein to predate upon Shias. Had we left the younger al Sadr alone, the mainstream Shia would have dealt with him.)

Third, separating "church and state: Unlike Iranian mullahs, the mainstream al-Sistani, Fayadh and al-Najafi factions believe that religion should inform the state but not control it. I find mainstream Shia preferable to the Salafist/Whahabbi Sunni that have so long held sway among Western Arabist scholars.

Now consider this amalgam of undifferentiated Shia actors with very different goals and drivers, all viewed by the US through a hostage-polished lens:

The White House is now counting on a Shiite-dominated government to stabilize Iraq. In a tactical shift, the United States is indirectly reaching out to Iran, backing Europe's offer of economic incentives to get Tehran to surrender any nuclear weapons program. And in Lebanon [Washington] might accept Hezbollah as a political party… The shift is a striking contrast from the U.S. encounter with Shiite activism in 1979, when students stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Three actors with differing needs are present:

  • Iraqi Shia
  • Iranian hard-line Shia
  • Hezbollah, a closely coupled and directed Iranian government proxy mistakenly labeled pro-Syrian

While the Iranian government and Hezbollah are closely linked, so much so that I believe that it was Hezbollah that assassinated Rafik al Hariri on instruction from Tehran, and not Syria or its local proxies, the Lebanese government and security forces, the Iraqi Shia. While Iraqi Shia share the religion, they do not share the activism of Iranian or Hezbollah factions.

I find it reasonable that mainstream Iraqi Shiites will increasingly separate from their more politically ideological peers in order to protect and consolidate their nascent political base. Iraqi Shiites could emerge as a more dependable, constant partner to US interests than the Sunni with whom we first treated while ignoring the Shias.

We could do far worse for thoughtful allies in the Middle East.

In Mideast, Shiites May Be Unlikely U.S. Allies
By Robin Wright
Washington Post
March 16, 2005

Gordon Housworth



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