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Shiites Push for Political Power in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

The writing is literally on the walls of these vivid mosques, where worshipers pause in blasting sunlight to read the instructions pasted up by Shiite spiritual leaders.

In these primordial stirrings of government, the Shiite leaders have banned political parties, ordered bureaucrats back to work and warned the people against accepting humanitarian aid from anywhere other than a mosque.

“The clergy are leading the nation politically,” reads a mimeographed poster with an edge of warning. “Be committed to the religious leadership.”

While at least some Shiites attended a U.S.-sponsored meeting Monday on building a transitional government for Iraq, many of the sect’s leaders are determined to forge an Islamic government from the remains of Saddam Hussein’s broken regime.

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As the days go by, the euphoria of sudden freedom has given way to anti-Americanism and a hardening of religious pride among the nation’s 16 million Shiites, who constitute a majority in Iraq.

Some Shiite strongholds have become de facto Islamic protectorates, where mosque leaders disburse everything from police patrols to television programming -- and where U.S. troops mostly stay out of sight on the outskirts of town.

In the absence of government, the Shiite leaders have claimed widespread power, and they appear determined to maintain their newfound clout.

“If [the United States] imposes a secular government that doesn’t respect the principles of Islam, we will resist it,” Abdul Mohdi, the chief religious leader of Karbala, said last week.

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“The people trust the clergy. The clergy will offer them the right path. We want the American troops off our soil,” Mohdi said.

This sort of talk clashes with the U.S. plans, which call for a democracy in Iraq.

But resistance is a time-honored tradition in the Shiite-dominated south, and the bloody lessons of recent history have bred heavy skepticism about U.S. intentions.

“They could cause a lot of trouble for the Americans. There will be resistance from the Shiites,” said Saad Naji Jawad, a political science professor at Baghdad University.

“There will be clashes in the south. I am sure of it,” Jawad said. “Sooner or later the Americans will have to use force.”

On Friday, the self-declared governor of Al Kut left a government office under threat of arrest by U.S. Marines.

It is not clear how successful the Shiites will be, or whether the majority will fall in with their religious leaders’ call for Islamic rule.

It is also unclear whether the fractious leaders are capable of knitting themselves into a unified entity: They have bloodied the streets around their sacred sites in a clandestine internal battle for control.

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‘Only Political Party’

As a turbaned man stepped up to the microphone Friday, thousands of men kneeling in the dusty vacant lot fell silent. Shiites of the slums on Baghdad’s outskirts had been waiting for Sheik Mohammed Fartusi’s pronouncement.

“We want an Islamic rule chosen by the people,” Fartusi said, his words booming to the last row, into the alleys of the market and over the decrepit rooftops. His followers gave a cry of approval, and Fartusi continued, “We prefer the law of heaven, the law of God, rather than the law of man.”

Earlier in the week, Fartusi was detained briefly by U.S. forces under circumstances that remain unclear. His followers claim the United States was alarmed at the blossoming clout of the religious leader and wanted to send them a warning.

When Baghdad fell and this nation tumbled into chaos, Karbala’s religious leaders were quick to assert themselves. They banned political demonstrations. They sent security forces into the streets. They commanded the old opposition parties to give up their guns.

They have proscribed punishment for the former members of the Baath Party regime -- they should be left in peace, the spiritual leaders advised, unless they were accused of murder. Then they called the government workers back to their jobs, and supervised the formation of a city council.

“By saying they want democracy they mean, ‘We’re the majority, so we’d have the upper hand,’ ” said Jawad, the political science professor. “When they say they don’t want political parties, they mean that they’re the only political party.”

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In his office in Karbala, Mohdi was unapologetic.

“Political parties always fail in the end,” he said. “Our prophet Muhammad made political decisions and military decisions. He was the administrator of the Islamic nation. How can we separate religion from politics?”

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Anti-American Protest

South of Baghdad, the earth turns browner and the heat thickens. Palm groves and dried farmland stretch down toward the Euphrates. More than 1 million pilgrims poured over these roads last week, beating their breasts and shouting their prayers in an ancient Shiite rite that had been banned for nearly three decades.

In the midst of the revelry in Karbala, thousands of Shiite disciples broke into anti-American protest. With the international media in town to cover the pilgrimage, many of the worshipers carried English-language placards calling for independence, human rights and religious leadership.

Protest organizer Mohammed Nahab said each decision was approved by the religious leaders -- even the slogans that could be shouted.

“It isn’t that the clergy is controlling things -- it’s that they give us certain limits we can’t go beyond,” said Nahab, 40. Until this month, Nahab was imprisoned in a Baghdad intelligence lockup on suspicion of being a spy. He was set free when U.S. troops stormed the city. Ten days later, he was in Karbala, protesting the presence of U.S. soldiers on Iraqi soil.

“Do I owe the Americans a favor just because I was released?” he said. “Keep in mind, they are coming here to rule Iraq.”

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Power of Nationalism

Nahab personifies one of the paradoxes of this war: As the heartland of the Shiites, southern Iraq bore some of the harshest violence and discrimination under the Baath regime, which was dominated by rival Sunni Muslims. Analysts had predicted that when the time came, the people of the south would rise up to battle the Baathists alongside invading U.S.-led forces.

That never happened. Some of the heaviest fighting against U.S. and British troops was in southern Iraq. Nationalism runs deep among the Shiites, and the beleaguered sect has a tradition of biting back at strong powers.

Karbala never forgot the Shiite uprising of 1991, carrying their memories in secret, hidden from the omnipresent ears of the government. Only now do the stories come forth: The families of slain students hang black-and-white snapshots on downtown walls, belated eulogies are painted on banners and women wander the streets in sorrow, telling and retelling the story of their children’s deaths.

The first President Bush had appealed to the Iraqis to rebel against their leadership in the wake of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Confident the United States would protect them, residents of all but one of Iraq’s provinces took to the streets. In Karbala, rebels took over the mosques and executed government representatives.

But U.S. soldiers never materialized, and Hussein turned his massive army on his own people. When the fighting was over, the streets around Karbala’s gold-domed shrines were littered with corpses. Thousands in the city had been slaughtered.

War gave way to 13 years of sanctions -- times of hunger, isolation and unemployment.

Resentment against the United States festered.

“We feel America is coming into Iraq for its own interests,” Mohdi said. “Why now? If America wanted to liberate Iraq, why did they turn their backs in 1991 and let Saddam Hussein attack us?”

The religious leader said he hadn’t communicated directly with the foreign troops but that he had passed word to their commanders through civilian messengers, asking them to stay on the outskirts of town.

During the days of the pilgrimage, the American troops were nowhere to be seen. Over the sleeping pilgrims sprawled in the shade of the mosque, there hung a decree from the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq: “The foreigner must not find fertile ground in Iraq.”

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2 Holy Men Killed

A parade of crude wooden coffins pours all day into the Shiite capital of Najaf and angles toward the shrine on the shoulders of mourning men, high over the heads of vendors who hawk rose water and incense to ward off the stench of the dead.

Najaf is a city of death -- in the vast cemetery on the dusty hem of town, Shiites come from all over the country to lay their loved ones to rest.

But Najaf is also a city of scholarship, living law and evolving decree, home to a powerful council of Shiites who debate the sect’s doctrines. To Shiites, the very name of the city is shorthand for “authority.” The hawsa, or council of scholars, represents the law.

But now the holy men of Najaf are embroiled in intrigue. At least two of them have been killed by mobs this month in the streets outside the mosque.

Abdel Majid Khoei, an exile who had returned from London to rally support for the U.S. forces, was stabbed to death, as was Haidar Kadar, a Hussein loyalist. The two men had appeared together in a gesture meant to promote goodwill.

The mosque, which rises in gleaming turquoise splendor from the squawk and squalor of the marketplace, was locked down. Even Friday preaching has been skipped sporadically.

From the beginning of the war, religious leaders were split over whether to resist U.S. troops as foreign invaders or regard them as an unsavory but necessary tool that could rid Iraq of the Baath regime.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the reclusive head of the Najaf shrine, dissuaded his followers from resistance. After Baghdad fell, a raging mob encircled his house, demanding he leave the country. Sistani has kept out of sight ever since.

The most important challenger to Sistani is Muqtader Sadr, an upstart who, in his early 20s, is too young to stake any claim in the hawsa. But Sadr is the son of a beloved religious leader stabbed to death by the Baathists, and he has capitalized on his father’s image of martyrdom.

There are others: scholars who see an opportunity for grandeur, exiles trickling back from Iran with bands of followers and messages of resistance to a secular government.

For now, U.S. troops linger on the edge of town, watching.

“I don’t think the Shiite understand that their country is a colony now,” Jawad said.

“It’s the Americans who are running things. All the shouts and marching will come to nothing.”

--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---

In stories after April 9, 2004, Shiite cleric Muqtader Sadr is correctly referred to as Muqtada Sadr.

--- END NOTE ---


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