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The March of Shiism
November 2009

Today, the key to the future of Iraq is in Tehran. On April 9, 2003, the day US forces occupied Baghdad, control in Mesopotamia was transferred to Iraq’s 60% Shiite majority after a thousand years of Arab Sunni control. Washington’s elimination of the Wahhabi Talibans in Afghanistan in 2001 and Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq in 2003 allowed Iran to become the major power over Iraq and the world’s richest oil region. On April 9, 2003, the U.S. won the battle against a tattered Iraq. But Iran, without firing a shot won the war for Iraq; a triumph for the Khomeini revolution---one of Shiism’s greatest moments since Saladin ended the rule of the Shiite Fatimid State in Cairo in 1171 A.D. The British think tank, Chatham House, concluded in August 2006: “The greatest problem facing the U.S. is that Iran has superseded it as the most influential power in Iraq”.

To appreciate the reasons why Iran has gained the upper hand in southern Iraq a brief outline of the Shiite/Sunni divide and the forces that bind Shiism together would be helpful.

The Shiite/Sunni divide

The Prophet died in 632 A.D. He left no male children and devised no succession plan. According to Shiite clerics, the Prophet had “designated” Ali as His successor. Ali was the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law who married the Prophet’s daughter Fatima and left two sons from this marriage, Hasan and Hussein. Hussein was killed in 680 A.D. seeking the Imamate (Caliphate), the religious and temporal authority over the Muslim community. Shiites everywhere commemorate Hussein’s martyrdom annually with astonishing displays of sorrow.

Sunnis reject the notion that the Prophet “designated” Ali as his first successor. This conflict inspired scores of heterodox sects among Ali’s followers, some forming independent states lasting for centuries and causing great battles. While Sunnis today represent 85% of the 1.4 billion Muslims, with 15% Shiite minority, the opposite ratio existed around 1000 A.D.

To most Sunni clerics Shiites are heretics. In Bahrain, the Sunni minority dominates the Shiite majority. In Iraq, until the U.S. changed  the country’s power pyramid in 2003, the Shiite majority was deprived. In Kuwait, Shiites, almost one-third of Kuwaitis, are second-class citizens. For example, they share one mosque for every 13,000 persons, compared to one mosque for every 600 Sunnis. In Lebanon, Shiites, a third of the population, are underprivileged. In Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, the founder of the kingdom treated the Shiites legally as non-Muslims. Saudi Shiites continue to be discriminated against. Their towns and villages are pathetically poor; though, they hold the world’s richest oil reserves. In Syria, until seizing power in 1970, the Alawites, a Shiite sect, lived in abject poverty. In Yemen, the Zaydis, a Shiite sect estimated at 8-9 million people  of Yemen's 22-million population, occupy the north west mountainous region bordering Saudi Arabia, accuse the Sunni government of genocide. Led by Sheikh Hussein Al-Houthi, Zaidis have been in rebellion since 2004. In October 2009, Saudi military forces entered the fight openly on the side of  Yemeni forces. The Yemeni and Saudi governments accuse Iran of helping the Houthis.

In Iran, the Eighth Imam is buried in Mashhad, and in Qumm his sister is buried. Just outside Damascus, Syria, Zainab, the sister of Hasan and Hussein, is buried. In commemorating the annual anniversary of  Imam Hussein's martyrdom in battle huge pilgrimages pull the Shiite communities together with astonishing displays of self-flagellation. The mother of Imam Hussein's son, Imam Ali Zain Al-Adideen, from whom all eight Shiite Imams that followed were descended, was a Persian Princess, Zinan, daughter of the King of the Persians, Kisra Yezdejird.
Furthermore, in the seminaries of Najaf, Karbala, Mashhad, and Qumm the best-known Shiite ulama teach. The prominent families of Najaf and Karbala trace their roots to long lines of marriages with the great families of Burjurid, Isfahan, Kirmanshah, and Tehran.

Ayatollahs have cross-country followings. From Najaf and Karbala, Iranian clerics often led the Shiite world. In 1920, the rebellion against the British occupation of Iraq was led from the two holy cities by the two global Marjaa (the most recognized Shiite ulama authority) at the time, both from Iran. Since 1970, Iranians; Abu Gharib Al-Khoei (1970-1992) and Ali Al-Sistani (1992-present), have been the leaders. Grand Ayatollah Khomeini taught in Najaf for 13 years before Saddam Hussein's regime expelled him in 1978.

The Shiite minorities look to Iran for deliverance from Sunni discrimination.  Egyptian President Mubarak declared in April 2006  that Shiites in Arab states were more loyal to Iran than to their own countries. Indeed, the Badr Brigade, an Iraqi Shiite fighting force founded and commanded by the late Iraqi Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir Al-Hakeem and his brother of Abdulaziz fought in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) on the side of Tehran.  That a leading establishment newspaper in Tehran, Khayan, declared in July 2007 that "public demand in Bahrain is the reunification of this province with its motherland, the Islamic Iran" must be threatening to Bahrain ruling elites. The fear that Iran might actively assist Arab Shiites to demand their human rights after the departure of US troops from Iraq must be sending shivers in GCC circles and beyond.

The so-called “historical ethnic enmity” between Arabs and Persians is an exaggeration. The conflict has always been among the rulers, not the Shiite masses. Abbasid Baghdad (750-1258) had a long history of rivalry between Turkish and Persian generals over who would dominate the Caliph’s palace. The Sunni Ottoman Sultans fought Iran’s Shiite Safavid rulers (1501-1732). After the Ottoman defeat in World War One in 1918, the conflict had been between Baghdad’s Sunni rulers and the Shah of Iran and later, the Ayatollahs. That ethnic enmity between Arab and Persian would keep Baghdad and Tehran far apart is wishful thinking. This notion may have been promoted by those Iraqis who lobbied Washington’s offices of power to change Saddam’s regime and hand them control of Baghdad.

Iran’s infrastructure of influence in Iraq

Iraq is too important to Iran. The two countries share some 1,000-mile-long border. Southern Iraq has the holiest Shiite shrines, plus ninety billion barrels of proven oil reserves.

Iran has a solid infrastructure of support in southern Iraq. An Iranian, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, is the supreme authority for millions in Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere. He has declined Iraqi citizenship. His overt and heavy political involvement since the 2003 American occupation (see: Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani: Is He a Spiritual Guide or a Political Leader?) suggests that he belongs to Khomeini’s wilayat al-faqih School (rulership by the senior clerics). Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani is no friend of the American occupation. However, while consolidating Shiite control, the Ayatollah has supported the occupation forces.

The late Abdulaziz Al-Hakeem, was the head of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and its military arm, the Badr Brigade. Following Abdulaziz's death in August 2009 in a Tehran hospital, his son, Ammar, inherited his father's mantle. The Badr Brigade, a militia financed, trained, and equipped by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard fought on the side of Tehran in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). On December 21, 2006, US troops raided Al-Hakeem’s compound in Baghdad and detained two members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Abdulaziz Al-Hakeem spent most of his adult life in Iran. He returned to Iraq following the U.S. occupation, joining the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). He was at the top of the Al-Sistani-approved candidates in the January 30, 2005 parliamentary elections. When Abdulaziz’s older brother, Muhammad Baqir, was assassinated in Najaf on August 28, 2003, Tehran declared three days of national mourning.

Like Al-Sistani, Al-Hakeems are no friends of the American occupation. Their support of the occupation will end once Shiite control over Iraq becomes firmly established. Al-Sistani and Al-Hakeems may be described as Tehran’s instruments for the institution of Shiite control over Iraq.

Muqtada Al-Sadr, on the other hand, may be described as Tehran’s instrument to harass U.S. forces in Iraq.  Muqtada Al-Sadr is the heir to a prominent Arab Shiite clerics’ dynasty. He bases his claim to authority on his family’s lineage. In his mid/late-thirties, Muqtada Al-Sadr does not possess the scholarly qualifications required of a senior Shiite cleric. To improve his religious credentials, Muqtada Al-Sadr was appointed in April 2003 as Iraq’s representative of Grand Ayatollah Kazim Hussein Al-Haeri, a well-regarded Iraqi exile in the Hawza (Shiite seminary) of the famous religious city of Qumm, Iran. Muqtada Al-Sadr is a son of the highly revered Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq Al-Sadr. His uncle, another Grand Ayatollah, Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr, a colleague and a close associate of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during his exile years in the Najaf Hawza (September 5, 1965 - October 3, 1978), founded in 1958 the Islamic Daawa Party (IDP).

IDP is the oldest Shiite organized political party in Iraq. The Party’s senior leaders are closely linked to Tehran. IDP’s name describes its mission: proselytization. IDP aims at forming a theocratic state. Grand Aytatollah Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr championed wilayat al-faqih concept in his 1975 book, Islamic Political System. Four years later the Khomeini revolution was born.

IDP received big support from Tehran. IDP activists helped form Hezbollah in Lebanon. IDP leader Ibrahim Al-Jaafari became Iraq’s transitional prime minister. Al-Jaafari was in exile for many years in Iran. Nouri Al-Maliki, IDP’s second in command when he became Iraq’s first full-term prime minister succeeded Al-Jaafari. Al-Maliki, a hard-line activist, spent two decades in exile in Iran and Syria.

Strengthening Tehran grip on Baghdad are the personal rivalries that exist among Iraq's strongest Shiite leaders, particularly the Sistani/Hakeem camp on one hand and the Sadr organization on the other. In their turf wars, these men are compelled to seek assistance from Tehran. It is inconceivable that they would turn to Iraq’s Sunni neighbors for support. If they do, assistance would almost certainly be denied. Iran is the natural habitat for these men. Under such conditions, divide and rule is a powerful weapon in the hand of Iran’s ayatollahs to keep Iraq’s Shiite politicians virtual surrogates and Tehran the ultimate arbiter. That Iran reportedly made representatives of Al-Sadr and Al-Hakeem/Iraqi government end the fighting in Basra is a case in point.
Regardless of whether the U.S. increases the level of its military presence in Iraq or withdraws altogether; whether the Democrats or the Republicans control the White House and/or Capitol Hill, and regardless of whether Iraq emerges from its current chaos as a single entity, a federal republic, or broken-up into three states the occupation has set in motion events that make it difficult to predict how lifting the lid on Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic tensions could lead to anything but to Iranian domination over southern Iraq, to Shiite emboldenment everywhere, and to endless long-Term Shiite/Sunni conflicts spilling rivers of blood and breeding hoards of Jihadists until the Sunni leaders in the region would either accept Iran’s hegemony or succeed in stopping the march of Shiism.

Washington needs today to deal with Tehran. GCC rulers in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE are too feeble to challenge Iran. These men are non-representative dictators pre-occupied in outdoing each other on who owns the more ostentatious palace and who flies the bigger private Airbus or Boeing 747.