Though it is hazardous exercise setting a military withdrawal timetable three months before a US presidential election, Iraq says it has signed a deal that could see all US troops out of the country by 2011. As well as the doubts on the US side, Chief negotiator Mohammed al-Haj Hammoud and Iraq’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs also has to sell the so-called “27 point deal” to his own parliament but it may be the best chance to lock the US into a timetable for withdrawal. Hammoud said Baghdad and Washington had agreed to "withdraw the US troops from Iraq by end of 2011." The US is refusing to confirm the deal is finalised, but it is there for negotiation even if no-one is mentioning the agenda of where Iraq’s oil goes.
But if the US troops leave, the contest will go on in Baghdad and Basra as the consequences of the genie Saddam’s removal from power continue to be felt. The clash of whether Sunnis or Shias inherit his kingdom is a battle the US can no longer manage. During his long regime Saddam was a political opportunist who was quick to bend in what favourable wind was blowing. But he was also a Sunni and when US tanks rolled into Baghdad in April 2003, the long Sunni reign in Mesopotamia was over. According to Vali Nasr’s theory in “The Shia Revival”, Iraq is now the vanguard of a new Shia power, subtly different from the more theocratical version next door in Iran.
Hussein was deeply hostile of Iraqi Shias whom he believed were in secret allegiance with their co-religionists in Iran. Shia were also a majority in his own country. But they were concentrated in the south around Basra. Hussein’s clan was from the Sunni north where power was concentrated. When the British left the “mandate” of Iraq they handed over power to the Sunni. Senior diplomat Gertrude Bell, the “uncrowned queen of Iraq” and “daughter of the desert”, harboured suspicions of the prickly Shia mullahs and ayatollahs whom she believed were behind the revolt against the British at the end of World War I. The Shia uluma reciprocated and watched in bitterness as Bell handed power to the Sunnis.
The subsequent Sunni 80 year reign was only briefly punctuated by the 1958 coup in which Colonel Qasim overthrew and murdered Iraq’s last king Faisal II. Qasim was nominally Sunni but his mother was Shia and he had close ties to Iraq’s Communist Party which was also Shia. But Qasim lasted only five years before he was himself was deposed. The subsequent rise of Arab nationalism and Ba’thism kept the Shia further out of the picture.
When Saddam came to power, he ruthlessly suppressed any hint of Shia revolt against his regime. According to Vali Nasr, he systematically neglected the cities of the south and starved them of services. He caused the environmental catastrophe of the draining of riparian wetlands so they could no longer shelter anti-Saddam rebels. One million poverty-stricken Shia were forced to seek homes in the slums that surround Baghdad and Basra. As well, Saddam banned public Shia festivals such as Ashoura and murdered popular religious leaders. He also discouraged pilgrimages to shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala, the two holiest places of Shia orthodoxy.
Despite a litany of oppression, the Shia remained generally mute and mostly loyal. It was not until George Bush Snr’s false call to rebellion in 1991, that they lashed out. A riot in Basra rapidly spread north to Karbala and Najaf boosted by Bush 41's call for Iraqis to overthrow Saddam. But when a horrified Saudi Arabia saw the extent of the Shia uprising, they influenced the US to stay out of the resulting conflict. US forces in the Euphrates Valley merely watched on as Saddam crushed the revolt with the tanks of his praetorian division he had kept out of the war – the dreaded Republican Guard.
And while the Americans fiddled, Shia towns burned and the shrines at Karbala and Najaf were shelled. No one lifted a finger to help as tens of thousands of Shias died. One Iraqi general told the New Yorker he had captured many people whom he divided into three groups; those whom he knew were involved in the rebellion, those he wasn’t sure about, and those he knew had no involvement. He telephone High Command to ask what to do with them. “They said we should kill them all,” said the general, “and that’s what we did.”
Many mass graves would not be found until after the fall of Saddam. And it wasn’t until 30 January 2005 when Iraqis went to the polls that Sunni dominance would finally end. The hugely influential Ayatollah Sistani brokered a truce between Shia factions to present a united face. Only after Shia majority rule had been won, argued Sistani, could the Shia quibble about who precisely rules and under what system. The Shia House took 48 percent of the vote and almost half the seats in the new parliament. They did better again in the December elections that year and won 46 percent of all the seats, more than the Sunni and Kurdish blocks put together.
But the Shia alliance is an artificial one and remains fraught with hazard. There are three big power blocks. Firstly there is Sistani himself allied with the other grand ayatollahs of Najaf. Unlike their Iranian counterparts they have not been inclined to turn Iraq into an Islamic Republic. But they remain hugely influential. The second power block is the slum rebellion in Baghdad, Basra and Kirkuk led by Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr is the scion of a prominent Shia family who inherited a huge flock of urban poor from his cleric father who was murdered by Saddam. He is now trying to turn his Mahdi Army into a political machine.
The third element in Iraqi Shia politics is the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC). SIIC and its military wing, the Badr Brigade, straddle the boundary between Sistani and Sadr. Founded as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) by the Hakim Brothers, their father was a Najaf Ayatollah. The Hakims fled to Qom in Iran in the 1980s and their Badr Brigade fought in the war against Saddam. When Sunni extremists killed one brother in 2003, the other, Abdul-Aziz Hakim became SIIC’s leader.
The current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is from none of these three factions. He represents the nonclerical Islamic Da’wa Party but as the name would suggest it too has Islamists roots, dating back to a Saddam-era party dedicated to the establishment of an Islamic state in Iraq. Dawa and Maliki now depend on a coalition of Sadr and SIIC to rule. Sadr will not be happy with the timescale of the US withdrawal nor the vague conditions of “security” that might delay it. SIIC will proceed cautiously but Hakim is proving to be a surprisingly gifted operator and far from being an Iranian stooge.
Hakim’s political front the “United Arab Alliance” is the largest single party in parliament. In 2006 he met George W Bush at the Oval Office where he claimed the Iraqi situation has been “subjected to a great deal of defamation”. Hakim said US, Iraqi, and regional interests were are all linked. But he made it clear Iraq was going to go its own way. “We believe that the Iraqi issue should be solved by the Iraqis with the help of friends everywhere,” he told Bush 43. “But we reject any attempts to have a regional or international role in solving the Iraqi issue.” With an 2011 agenda now in place, McCain or Obama will have to take this man on his own merits.