| Juan Cole

How Bush Created a Theocracy in Iraq

The Bush administration naively believed that Iraq was a blank slate on which it could inscribe its vision for a remake of the Arab world. Iraq, however, was a witches’ brew of dynamic social and religious movements, a veritable pressure cooker. When George W. Bush invaded, he blew off the lid.

Shiite religious leaders and parties, in particular, have crucially shaped the new Iraq in each of its three political phases. The first was during the period of direct American rule, largely by Paul Bremer. The second comprised the months of interim government, when Iyad Allawi was prime minister. The third stretches from the formation of an elected government, with Ibrahim Jaafari as prime minister, to today.

In the first phase, expatriate Shiite parties returned to the country to emerge as major players, to the consternation of a confused and clueless “Coalition Provisional Authority.”

The oldest of these was the Dawa Party, founded in the late 1950s as a Shiite answer to mass parties such as the Communist Party of Iraq and the Arab nationalist Baath Party. Dawa means the call, as in the imperative to spread the faith. Dawa Party leaders in the 1960s and 1970s dreamed of a Shiite paradise to rival the workers� paradise of the Marxists, with a state ruled by Islamic law, where a “consultative council” somehow selected by the community would make further regulations in accordance with the Koran. The Dawa Party organized covert cells throughout the Shiite south. In 1980, in the wake of the Khomeini revolution in Iran, Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party cracked down hard on Dawa, executing many of its leaders, attacking its party workers and making membership in the party a crime punishable by death. The upper echelons of the Baath were dominated by Sunni Arabs who disliked religious Shiites, considering them backward and Iran-oriented rather than progressive and Arab. In the same year, 1980, Saddam invaded Iran, beginning a bloody eight-year-long war with his Shiite neighbor.

In the early 1980s, Iran came to be viewed in Washington as public enemy Number 2, right after the Soviet Union. In the Cold War, the United States had viewed Iran as a key asset, and in 1953 the CIA overthrew the populist government of elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, which had broken with the country’s monarch. The U.S. put the autocratic Mohammad Reza Shah back on his throne, building him up as an absolute monarch with a well-trained secret police and jails overflowing with prisoners of conscience. The shah’s obsequiousness toward the U.S., and his secularism, provoked the ire of many religious Shiites in Iran. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, exiled as a troublemaker in 1963, had lived from 1964 to 1978 in Iraq, where he developed a new doctrine that clerics should rule. In 1978 he was expelled from Iraq to Paris and helped lead the revolution of 1978-79 that overthrew the shah and brought Khomeini to power as theocrat in chief.

Khomeini�s rise coincided with that of Saddam, a secular Sunni. Thousands of activist Shiites from Iraq fled to Iran, and the leadership congregated in Tehran. In 1982, with the support of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Iraqi Shiite exiles formed a militant umbrella group, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Dawa was also active there. Among its leaders was a physician from the Shiite holy city of Karbala named Ibrahim Jaafari. In 1984, the cleric Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim became the head of SCIRI. From Iran, both Dawa and SCIRI mounted commando attacks on Baathist facilities and officials, attempting to overthrow the Baath government. In 1989 Jaafari and other lay leaders of the Dawa Party relocated to London, seeking greater freedom of action than they could attain under the watchful eyes of the ayatollahs in Tehran.

During the Gulf War of 1990-91, when the U.S. and its allies pushed Saddam Hussein�s forces back out of Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush called on Iraqis to rise up against the dictator. The Shiites took him at his word, launching a popular revolution in the spring of 1991 in which they took control of the southern provinces. Bush, fearful of a Shiite Islamic republic, then allowed the Baath to crush the revolution, killing tens of thousands. In the aftermath, two clerical leaders emerged: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, originally from Iran but resident in Najaf since late 1951, took a cautious and quietist course, teaching religion but staying out of politics. His rival, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, increasingly defied Saddam, organizing poor Shiites into a puritanical form of religion. In 1999 the Baath secret police killed al-Sadr and his two older sons. His middle son, Muqtada, went underground. The religious Shiite parties established their credibility with the Shiite public by their dissident activities.

In the run-up to the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, both the London branch of the Dawa Party and the Tehran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq engaged in consultations with Washington. Both had been involved in extensive meetings with secular Shiite politician Ahmed Chalabi, who organized the Iraqi National Congress as an expatriate party aimed at overthrowing the Baath. When Saddam fell, leaders of both Shiite organizations established themselves in Iraq. Ibrahim Jaafari came from London with his colleagues and sought to organize the Dawa Party as a populist political force in the Shiite south. Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq made a triumphal journey overland from Tehran to Iraq. SCIRI immediately launched membership drives in the villages and small cities of the Shiite south and garnered thousands, perhaps millions, of new members over the next year and a half.

In April and May of 2003, after the fall of Saddam, the Sadr movement emerged into the spotlight. Muqtada al-Sadr, just 30 years old, did not have the scholarly credentials to be a great clerical leader, but the fanatic devotion of the slum-dwelling Shiite masses to his father ensured that he, too, would be met with acclaim when he came out of hiding. He organized the takeover by his followers of most major mosques in the ghetto of East Baghdad, which was promptly renamed Sadr City in honor of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. He immediately launched regular demonstrations against what he characterized as the U.S. occupation of Iraq, demanding that American troops depart immediately. In the summer of 2003, he began organizing his militia, the Mahdi Army. He desires a theocratic government similar to that in Iran.

The U.S. State Department, fearful that the Pentagon might install corrupt expatriate politician Chalabi in power in Iraq, convinced President George W. Bush instead to send in Paul Bremer, who had been a career foreign service officer. Bremer intended initially to rule Iraq single-handedly. As the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement gained momentum in May and June, it became clear to him that he could not hope to rule Iraq by himself, and he appointed a governing council of 25 members. Ibrahim Jaafari of Dawa and Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim of SCIRI were appointed, as were several prominent figures with backgrounds in the Iraqi Dawa Party, along with Sunni Arabs and members of minorities.

Bremer’s plan to have the constitution written by a committee appointed by himself foundered when it met strong objections from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. In a fatwa, or legal ruling, Sistani insisted that an Iraqi constitution must be drafted by delegates to a constituent assembly elected by the Iraqi people. Bremer initially discounted this criticism. He is alleged to have asked one of his aides, “Can’t we get a fatwa from some other mullah?” It gradually became apparent that Sistani’s authority was such that he could overrule the U.S. proconsul on this issue.

By October of 2003, as the guerrilla war grew, it became clear that Bremer could not in fact hope to rule Iraq by fiat, and that the U.S. would have to hand sovereignty back to the Iraqis. Bremer�s initial plan was to hold circumscribed elections for a parliament. Most voters would be members of the provincial councils (each with 16 to 40 members) that the U.S. and Britain had somehow massaged into existence.

Again, Sistani objected, insisting that only open, one-person, one-vote elections could guarantee a government that reflected the will of the Iraqi people. It was almost as though Sistani were quoting French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the Americans. He also insisted on a prominent role for the United Nations as midwife to the new Iraq. When it seemed as though the Bush administration might ignore him, Sistani brought 40,000 demonstrators into the streets in Basra and 100,000 in Baghdad in mid-January of 2004. The Bush administration immediately acquiesced. U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Lakhdar came for extensive consultations, and elections were set for January 2005. In the meantime, the U.S. would hand sovereignty to an appointed government for six months, with a supporting United Nations resolution.

The weakness of the U.S. in Iraq encouraged the proliferation of party paramilitaries. The Dawa Party began having men patrol in some cities. SCIRI expanded its Badr Corps militia, originally trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. These militias avoided conflict with the U.S. because their parties had a marriage of convenience with the Bush administration, and because they agreed not to carry heavy weaponry. It is alleged that the Supreme Council continues to receive substantial help from Iran, and that the clerics in Tehran still pay the salaries of some of the Badr Corps fighters. The likelihood is that the Iranians give at least a little money and support to a wide range of Shiite politicians in Iraq, including some secularists, so that whoever comes out on top is beholden to them. The mullahs in Iraq probably support the Supreme Council more warmly than any other political party, however.

In contrast, the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr was viewed by the Americans as a threat, even though the Sadrists seldom came into violent conflict with U.S. troops. As the handover of sovereignty approached, the Americans in Iraq suddenly announced that they wanted to kill or capture Muqtada al-Sadr, and they arrested several of his key aides in early April 2004. He responded by launching a massive revolt, which initially succeeded in taking control of East Baghdad and several southern cities. Through hard fighting, the U.S. military gradually defeated the Mahdi Army, reaching a truce in early June. In August, fighting broke out again between the Sadrists and the Marines in the holy city of Najaf. This crisis was resolved when Sistani returned from London after a heart procedure there to call for all Iraqis to march on Najaf. The flooding of the city by civilians made further fighting impossible, and Muqtada al-Sadr slipped away. Thereafter Muqtada fell quiet for many months. When he reemerged, it was as a political broker rather than simply a warlord.

The Americans had had to give up their hopes of ruling Iraq directly, both because of the Sunni Arab guerrilla war and the challenge of the Shiites. Although he was more peaceful about it, Sistani opposed key American initiatives as much as the young firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr did. The Mahdi Army uprising was the nail in the coffin of direct American rule of Iraq. Next, the U.S. completely lost control of the political process.

In fall 2004, Sistani intervened to shape the upcoming elections. He insisted that all the major Shiite parties run on a single list, to avoid splitting the Shiite vote. Since Shiites comprise about 62% of Iraqis, a united Shiite list could hope to win a majority in parliament. The coalition of Dawa, SCIRI and smaller Shiite parties won the election on Jan. 30, as Sistani had foreseen. The U.S. had attempted to build up the old CIA asset and secular ex-Baathist, Iyad Allawi, as the natural leader of Iraq. It signally failed. His list received only about 14% of seats in parliament.

The real winners of the January 2005 elections were the Shiite religious parties. This was bad news for Bush. In partnership with the Kurdish Alliance, they formed a government that brought Ibrahim Jaafari of Dawa to power as prime minister and gave Dawa and SCIRI several important posts in the executive. Sunni Arabs from the rival branch of Islam were largely excluded from the new government, insofar as they had either boycotted the election or had been unable to vote for security reasons. The new Jaafari government quickly established warm relations with Iran, receiving a pledge of $1 billion in aid, the use of Iranian port facilities and help with refining Iraqi petroleum.

At the provincial level, the Shiite parties swept to power throughout the south. SCIRI dominated nine of 11 provinces that had a significant Shiite population, including Baghdad province. The Sadrists took Maysan province and Basra province. Shiite militias proliferated and established themselves.

The dominance of the central legislature and the executive by religious Shiites gave Sistani great moral authority over the drafting of the permanent constitution, the main task of the new parliament. The Shiites inserted a provision that no legislation could be passed by parliament that contravened the established laws of Islam, and made provisions for Muslim clerics to be appointed to the judiciary. Some important elements of the old Dawa Party vision of a government in accordance with Islam was therefore achieved, though it was leavened by modern, secular human rights ideals. When Dawa and SCIRI were based in Tehran in the 1980s, plotting to overthrow Saddam and come to power, they could not have imagined that their dream would be realized 20 years later with American help. Jaafari, the elected prime minister, employed his position to strengthen the Shiite fundamentalist Dawa Party that he headed. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim had lived to see his Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq rule half the provinces of Iraq, including the capital, as well as play a central role in the parliament and the cabinet. Both parties drew Baghdad closer to Tehran, seeking warm relations with the clerical rulers of Iran. Shiite power now dominated the eastern stretches of the Middle East. The Bush administration trumpeted its bestowal of democracy in the region, but most Middle Eastern observers saw only the installation of a new Shiite power.

The hawks in the Bush administration had initially hoped that a conquered Iraq would form the launching pad for a further American war on Iran. The Shiites of Iraq foiled that plan. Sistani forced the Americans into direct, one-person, one-vote elections. Those elections in turn ensured that the religious Shiites would come to power, since they had the greatest street credibility, given their long struggle against Saddam and their nationalist credentials in the face of American occupation.

An Iraq dominated by religious Shiites who had often lived in exile in Iran for decades is inevitably an Iraq with warm relations with Tehran. The U.S., bogged down in a military quagmire in the Sunni Arab regions, cannot afford to provoke massive demonstrations and uprisings in the Shiite areas of Iraq by attacking Iran. Bush has inadvertently strengthened Iran, giving it a new, religious Shiite ally in the Gulf region. The traditional Sunni powers in the region, such as the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, are alarmed and annoyed that Bush has created a new “Shiite crescent.” Far from weakening or overthrowing the ayatollahs, Bush has ensconced and strengthened them. Indeed, by chasing after imaginary weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he may have lost any real opportunity to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon should it decide to do so.

The real winners of the Iraq war are the Shiites.

Juan Cole
Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the proprietor of the Informed Comment e-zine. He has written extensively on modern Islamic movements in…
Juan Cole

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