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May 24, 2004

A Shi'ite International?


by Juan Cole

There was more heavy fighting in Karbala early on Friday, after which the city fell eerily quiet. By Friday night into early Saturday morning, Mahdi Army militiamen had mysteriously ceased fighting, and the U.S. had withdrawn from sites like Mukhayyam mosque near the shrine of Imam Husain. Meanwhile, Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on his followers to continue to fight even if he is killed.

There were big demonstrations Friday throughout the Shi'ite world, including Lebanon, Bahrain, Iran and Pakistan, against continued U.S. fighting in Karbala, a key holy city for Shi'ite Muslims.

Geo-strategically, this entire episode is a huge disaster. Some Americans may feel it is unfair of Shi'ites to blame only the U.S. for the fighting, when it is Muqtada's militia that is firing from the shrines. But life is unfair. People always mind what foreigners do to the symbols of their native identity more than they mind what their own radicals do.

Al-Qaeda's declaration of war on the U.S. was a ploy to turn Sunni Muslims, especially hard liners like Wahhabis and Salafis, against America and recruit them as foot soldiers. In 2002 and 2003, the Pentagon replied in part by seeking Shi'ite allies. These included the Hazaras, who were part of the Northern Alliance that defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan. They also included the Iraqi Shi'ites, whom the Department of Defense wooed as allies against Saddam and the Ba'athists. In his unwise decision to try to get Muqtada al-Sadr dead or alive and to send GIs into Shi'ite holy places with heavy firepower, Bush is in the process of turning the Shi'ite world decisively against the U.S. and perhaps creating new centers of anti-American paramilitary action.

The demonstration in Islamabad, Pakistan, was small, but there were anti-American sermons in Shi'ite mosques throughout the country. Pakistan's population is 140 million or so, and I estimate Shi'ites at 15%. If I'm right, that's 21 million angry South Asians. Pakistani Shi'ites are afraid of al-Qaeda and its allies, like the radical Sunni group, Sipah-i Sahabah (Army of the Prophet's Companions), who assassinate Shi'ites for sport. They had been a support for Gen. Musharraf's policy of turning against the Taliban and allying with the U.S. Now Bush's attacks on Karbala and Najaf have begun deeply alienating them from the U.S. Someone give Bush a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People, quick!

The demonstration, 5,000-strong, in Manama, Bahrain, produced a political casualty. The king fired the Interior Minister and declared his opposition to what the Americans are doing in Karbala and Najaf, as well as what the Israelis are doing in Gaza. "We share the anger of our people over the oppression and aggression taking place in Palestine and in the holy shrines (in Iraq). People had a right to peaceful protests. We are investigating," the agency quoted the king as saying. This is a formal, non-NATO American ally speaking! Bush is even pushing his closest friends into dissociating themselves from him, at least rhetorically.

The biggest demonstration was in Lebanon, called by Hizbullah, perhaps numbering in the tens of thousands. Lebanon's population is only 3 or 4 million, about 40% Shi'ite. I figure ten percent of Lebanese Shi'ites may have come out for this rally!

The irony for me here is that I often give the Shi'ites of Lebanon as an example of how radical Shi'ites can evolve into democratic, moderate ones. The AMAL party was more or less a terrorist organization from an American point of view in the early 1980s, but in the 1990s it became a middle class parliamentary party and gave up its paramilitary. Its rival, Hizbullah, tended to appeal to poor Shi'ites in the slums or peasant villagers in the south, and it retained 5,000 fighters in its paramilitary. It remained militant in order to get the Israelis back out of Lebanon, in which it finally succeeded in 2000 (once Israelis steal your land, they don't usually give it back). Hizbullah seemed on the way to evolving into a parliamentary party, as well (it hasn't been involved in international terrorism for many years, to my knowledge).

There is some danger of joint U.S. and Israeli policies re-radicalizing Lebanese Shi'ites and making the more militant Hizbullah more popular than the sedate AMAL. All you have to do is fire helicopter gunship missiles into civilian crowds in Gaza and then bombard Karbala, and somehow it mysteriously angers a lot of Lebanese Shi'ites.

In Iran, as well, of course, U.S. military action in the holy shrine cities is a gift to the hardliners. The latter have long tried to paint the reformists who want more democracy as traitors in cahoots with America to destroy Shi'ite Islam and Iranian culture.

I said the other day I thought Bush was pushing Europe to the left with his policies. I think he is at the same time pushing the Shi'ite world to the radical Right, and I fear my grandchildren will still be reaping the whirlwind that George W. Bush is sowing in the city of Imam Husain. I concluded in early April that Bush had lost Iraq. He has by now lost the entire Muslim world.


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    Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Visit his blog.

     

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