Fall of Hussein Could Lead to a Shift in Center, Focus of Shiite Muslims

Times Staff Writer

The fall of Saddam Hussein's regime is likely to lead to the reemergence of the holiest site in Shiite Islam, the Iraqi city of Najaf, and foster a more moderate form of the religion that could challenge the authority of Iran's Islamic Republic among the world's 170 million Shiites, religious scholars say.

Iran and Iraq are predominantly Shiite. However, Hussein's regime was dominated by Sunni Muslims and regarded the rival branch of Islam as a political threat. His rule turned Najaf, the dominant Shiite center of learning for most of the last thousand years, into a backwater.

Meanwhile, the Iranian holy city Qom gained in status because of the success of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's revolution, which fused religious and political authority and exported anti-Western terror.

Many Shiite scholars, particularly in Arab countries, say they are eager to see Najaf regain its place as the most respected center of learning. They say that its religious leaders, some of whom supported the U.S. intervention to oust Hussein, are less rigid than their counterparts who dominate Iran.

The reemergence of Najaf could assist Iranian reformers and offer Shiites elsewhere a more open interpretation of the faith, the scholars say.

An important Shiite figure in Iran, Mohsen Kadivar, who spent 18 months in prison for criticizing his country's system, said that because of its own Shiite traditions, "Iraq could end up with the sort of government Iran was supposed to have -- religious, but also democratic."

Long before the rise of Osama bin Laden and his form of radical Islam, Iran's leadership of the Shiite world secured for Khomeini and his successors religious justification for their political agenda. Iran's spiritual influence has been central to its political goals in places such as Lebanon. When radical religious leaders there founded Hezbollah in the early 1980s, the Lebanese fighters also pledged religious allegiance to the ayatollah.

Iran's anti-Americanism has eased somewhat in the two decades since the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran and the 1982 bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, but Iran's support of militant Palestinian groups and Hezbollah still contribute to the violent landscape of the region.

Although Iraqi Shiite leaders are careful about what they say in public, those associated with Najaf do not share Khomeini's interpretation of the faith and do not view the United States as the "Great Satan," according to several prominent Shiites in Iran. Those Iraqis still fear the reaction of radical Shiite circles in Iran and Lebanon. Still, they are likely to make tacit accommodation with a U.S.-led transitional government in Iraq, provided it allows Shiites a role that reflects their majority status.

Open religious debate in Najaf would "definitely question the legitimacy of absolute rule by the clergy," said Ahmed Montazeri, son of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, onetime heir to Khomeini who fell out of favor and lived under house arrest in Qom for years until his release three months ago.

The faith still is in violent ferment in Iraq in the aftermath of Hussein's ouster. On April 10, a mob in Najaf killed religious leader Abdel Majid Khoei, whose late father was Iraq's supreme religious leader for nearly four decades. Khoei had supported the U.S.-led war. Days later, crowds besieged the residence in Najaf of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual heir to Khoei's father, who had urged his followers not to resist the invasion of Iraq. The crowd demanded that Sistani leave the country.

Still, religious scholars are talking openly about the prospect of an invigorated, more moderate center of Shiite Islam developing in Najaf that would vie with Qom for seminarians, the most prestigious scholars and ultimate authority in the Shiite world.

The religious debate might be theoretical, but it has serious practical consequences. According to Shiite doctrine, believers are bound by the edicts of the religious leaders they choose to follow. Decisions about the direction of the faith will determine where the center of Shiite Islam should be, how a leader is chosen and whether he should also be a head of state.

Arab Shiites have gone to Qom in recent decades because Najaf was isolated by Hussein and tainted by association with his regime. But many say they are tired of seeing their faith dominated by Iranians, a majority of whom are Persian rather than Arab.

"If there is freedom in Iraq, many would go to Najaf. Qom would be lessened as a place of scholarship," said the preeminent Shiite religious authority in Lebanon, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.

Iran's fundamentalist leaders also have sought to extend their influence and build their reputation in the world of political Islam by championing the Palestinian cause. Iran's influence over Sunni Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad is limited, so Tehran has encouraged Hezbollah to more actively assist the current Palestinian uprising.

"The Islamic Resistance [Hezbollah] shall be a guiding torch for other combatants," said Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a Tehran conference in support of the Palestinian uprising.

Iran's patronage of militant groups in the region is highly controversial at home. Reformers in government and many ordinary Iranians believe it makes it impossible for the country to shake off its rogue image and regain its place in the international community. But the reformers have been unable to challenge hard-line religious leaders' hold over state power, and cash and arms continue to flow to militant groups.

Allies of moderate President Mohammad Khatami concede that their efforts to persuade hard-liners to drop both support for militant groups and calls for the destruction of Israel have been a failure.

"The conservatives think they can't back down on these issues," said a senior advisor to Khatami.

Iran also has tried to influence Iraqi Shiites' voices on the U.S.-led war in Iraq. At the start of the war, Iran feared that Iraqi Shiite leaders would use their spiritual clout to legitimize the war to remove Hussein. The Islamic establishment in Iran convened a meeting with exiled Iraqi religious leaders living in Qom and pressured them to issue statements against the U.S.-British effort, according to both Iranian and Iraqi sources.

But the younger Montazeri pointed to the TV pictures that came out of Najaf during the war, when U.S. soldiers were careful not to challenge an agitated crowd that was protecting the tomb of Imam Ali, son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, whose belief in his right to lead the Islamic world led to the Sunni-Shiite split.

"Everyone is talking about this scene," Montazeri said. "It shows the United States is being wise, that freedom will be established in Iraq."

At home, Iran's reformers also have been unable to force Khamenei and his followers to loosen their control over society.

Because the establishment holds that its political authority comes from God, and that it is accountable only to God, reformists have had difficulty challenging the hard-liners with worldly tools such as legislation. The moderates are searching for a model that is grounded in an interpretation of their religion and that supports democracy.

Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, said that a new generation of religious leaders who oppose the Iranian system could emerge in Najaf. "The Montazeris [and other dissidents] would benefit from their stance having legitimacy and operating freely in the shrine cities," he said.

Kadivar, the Iranian dissident, said religious figures who cannot debate freely in Iran might move to Najaf, where they would have that opportunity.

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