The assassination of Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim in Najaf on Aug. 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 reserves.
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 brigade.
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 is the Director of Middle East Studies at Brown University and the author of the forthcoming book, “Iraq: State in Search of a Nation.”