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[casi] Killing of Ayatollah Is Start of Iraqi Civil War

Killing of Ayatollah Is Start of Iraqi Civil War

Commentary, William O. Beeman,
Pacific News Service, Aug 29, 2003
[William O. Beeman, Director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. He
is author of the forthcoming book, Iraq: State in Search of a Nation.]

The bombing of one of Islam's holiest shrines not only killed an important
Shi'a leader, it also signals the first shot in an Iraqi civil war that
Middle East experts warned would ensue if Saddam were removed without
careful planning.

The assassination of Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim in Najaf on August 28
is the opening volley in the coming Iraqi Civil War. The United States will
reap the whirlwind.

One of the most consistent and ominous prewar warnings to the Bush
administration by Middle East experts was that removal of Saddam Hussein
without the most careful political and social engineering would result in
the breaking apart of Iraq into warring factions that would battle each
other for decades.

The hawks in the White House would not listen. They were so wedded to the
fantasy scenario that the removal of Saddam in an act of "creative
destruction" would result in the automatic emergence of democracy. They
brushed aside all warnings.

Present-day Iraq was three provinces of the Ottoman Empire before World War
I. It was cobbled together by the British for their own convenience after
that conflict. The British installed a king, the Saudi Arabian son of the
chief religious official of Mecca (Faisal, of Lawrence of Arabia Fame) and
glued the whole mess together with the resident British Army.

The three regions were incompatible in ethnicity, religious confession and
interests. The Sunni Muslim Kurds occupied the north. The Sunni Arab
Bedouins occupied the center and Southwest. The Shi'a Arab and Persian
population occupied the South and Southeast. Of the three groups, the Shi'a
were largest, with 60 percent of the population. With oil, an outlet to the
Persian Gulf and good agricultural land, they would be the natural dominant
force in the state the British created. The Kurds would be important, too,
because they lived in the region of the country with the largest oil

However, the British wanted the Sunni Arabs, the smallest faction of the
population, to be dominant. They wanted this both to reward Saudi Arabians
for helping them fight the Ottomans, and because they had existing clients
in the sheikhs who ruled the Arab states of the Gulf.

When the British were finally expelled, and their Saudi ruling family
deposed in Iraq in a 1958 nationalist coup, the new Ba'athist Iraqi
nationalist rulers had a supremely unruly nation on their hand. The only way
to keep power in Sunni Arab hands, and away from the Shi'ites was through
ruthless dictatorship and oppression. Saddam Hussein was the supreme master
of this political strategy.

Ayatollah al-Hakim's family was victimized by this oppression. Virtually
every one of the Ayatollah's male relatives was executed by Saddam's regime.
He fled to Iran for years of exile, returning only after Saddam was deposed
by the United States. He became one of the principal leaders of the Shi'a
community, and a symbol of rising Shi'a power in post-War Iraq. His
triumphant return to Iraq and the holy city of Najaf was one of the most
celebrated events in recent Iraqi history.

It is still not known who set off the explosion that killed him at the
shrine of Ali, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. It could have been Sunni
Arab factions who fear the rise of Shi'a dominance in Iraq, or it could have
been his own Shi'a supporters, disappointed with him for cooperating with
American policies in Iraq. Or it could have been someone else. What is clear
is that his death will now forever be a rallying cry for the Shi'ite
community against its enemies.

It is notable that in Shi'ism virtually all significant leaders have been
"martyred." Of the 12 historical Imams of the Ithna 'ashara branch of
Shi'ism dominant in Iraq and Iran (Ithna 'ashara means "twelve" in Arabic),
ten are buried in shrines in Iraq. Their tombs are ever-present reminders of
the oppression and struggle of the Shi'a. Now Ayatollah al-Hakim will join
them, and with the power of a saint, will inspire generations of grimly
dedicated young warriors, determined to wreak vengeance and assert the power
of their community. They will be led by his own paramilitary group, the Badr

Shi'a fury will be directed at the Sunnis to the north. It will also be
directed toward United States as the occupying force who both did nothing to
prevent this tragedy, and further continued the British doctrine of Sunni
favoritism by insisting that the Shi'a religious leaders would never be
allowed to come to power. In any case, the forces of retribution are about
to be unleashed in a manner hitherto unseen in the region.

Could the United States have done anything to have prevented this tragedy?
Of course it could have. As the occupying power U.S. officials knew acutely
about the danger to Ayatollah al-Hakim. Since Washington opposed the rise of
Shi'a power in Iraq, charges of American indifference or even complicity in
his death will soon be flying.

The final question Washington must now face is how to stop this inevitable
civil war? When the factional shooting starts, where does the U.S. army,
caught in the crossfire, aim its own guns?

William O. Beeman, Director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. He
is author of the forthcoming book, Iraq: State in Search of a Nation.

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