GHOSTS OF KARBALA

January 28, 2005 // by admin

(Note:  you can also find this piece on The Adventures of Chester, where I’m double-blogging for the next few days.)

Two more days until Iraqi elections; the voting’s already begun in Australia, and, of course, the disloyal opposition isregistering their presence, as well.

Meanwhile, you have to admire a people with the ability to alarm kings, sultans, terrorists, military officers, newspaper columnists, CIA officials and State Department panjandrums, not to mention thousands of citizens who once supped at the table of their worst enemy.  I’m talking, of course, about Iraq’s Shia population.

Focused as we are on the spread of democracy in the region, we are less attuned to what may be the true revolution in this election.  Numbering some 150 million of Islam’s 1.2 billion adherents, the Shia have always suffered minority status in the Muslim ummah.  Only in Iran and tiny Azerbaijan do a Shia majority rule their nation.  But now, thanks to American military might and their own astonishing discipline and maturity, the Party of Ali is poised on the brink of political control of Iraq, the heart of the Muslim Middle East.

And their neighbors are afraid.  Along with other observers, I’ve noted earlier (“Our Man in Waziristan“) that Sunday’s elections will create a “Shia crescent” running from Lebanon into Syria (where Bashar Assad’s minority Alawite sect is an off-shoot of Shiism), Iraq, Iran and then hooking around to Bahrain, which lies adjacent to Saudi Arabia–where two million more Shia sit atop the Wahhabi kingdom’s richest oil fields.

This fear of rising Shia power lies behind many of the negative comments we read about the upcoming Iraqi elections.  For example, on December 8, King Abdullah of Sunni-dominated Jordan warned that a Shia victory in Iraq would “open us to a whole new set of problems” that may destabilize the (Sunni) Middle East, including (Sunni-Wahhabi) Saudi Arabia. Reporting yesterday, Soraya Nelson and Huda Ahmed of the Knight Ridder news service, quoted a retired Jordanian (Sunni) general “summing up the views of many critics” that the Iraqi elections are “mission impossible…without the acquiescence of the Sunnis.”

And here’s Qatari academic and political analyst Mohammad al-Misfer, quoted on Wednesday by Agence France Presse:

[Sunni-dominated Gulf regimes] will not be in a stable situation if the Iraqi elections produce a Shiite leadership, because many Shiites in the region will no longer accept to be subordinate [to the Sunnis] after they see fellow Shiites in control in Iraq in addition to Iran. (my emphasis)

In (Sunni) Egypt, Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif warns that Iraq could plunge into a civil war, while former foreign ministerAhmed Maher cast doubts on the real motives for the elections:

What is suspicious is the insistence of the American and Iraqi authorities to hold the elections within the timescale.  This arouses fear and doubt over the real intentions of the supporters of the vote.  Elections which…impose the domination of the majority, some of whom are bent on vengeance, could have destructive consequences that extend throughout the region.

These fears are not confined to the Muslim world, but exist in Washington, as well.  As Fouad Ajami wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece Wednesday:

The power of the Arabist view lingers in the State Department and in the ranks of the CIA which retain a basic sympathy for the Sunni order.

We see these sympathies in the CIA’s support for Ayad Allawi, who–not to overlook the incredible bravery of the man (Shia-born, we should note)–halted the de-Baathification program in Iraq and attempted to bring Baathists into the government, resulting, some argue, in creating a network of insurgent spies and informers within the interim administration.  Nor should we overlook ex-CIA analyst Michael Scheurer’s offensive near-idolization of Osama bin Laden (“The Trouble with Hubris”), who seems to be positioning himself as the Sunni-Wahhabi standard-bearer against renascent Shiism.

The State Department also seems to exhibit signs of Shia-phobia.  As an observer in a neo-conservative Washington think-tank recently told me, “They want nothing to do with religion–they don’t get it, they don’t like to touch it.”  After all, it was a Shia theocracy in Iran that burned the diplomatic and foreign intelligence services during the 1979 Khomeini revolution.

Why is this important?  Because the news we receive about Iraq and, in particular, the upcoming elections, passes through many filters, not least of which is the difficult-to-understand Shia-Sunni split.  Officials in both the Middle East and Washington have their allegiances and their biases, which they convey, sometimes unconsciously, to reporters who in turn pass them on to us, often themselves unawares.  But they exist, and they are important.  Ghosts from the Battle of Karbala, fought 14 centuries ago in Iraq, reach to the halls of Washington, the front pages of our daily newspaper, and the television screens of our homes.

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