The Guardian |
The Ayatollah: Iraq's archduke?
The killing of an Iraqi Shia leader could be the event that ignites the country's tensions and causes a regional conflagration, writes Brian Whitaker
Monday September 1, 2003
The worst act of violence in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein was overshadowed in Britain's broadsheet papers on Saturday by news that Tony Blair's media adviser had resigned.
In the popular tabloids meanwhile, two celebrity stories vied for readers' attention: Madonna's "lesbian" kiss with Britney Spears and the publication of David Beckham's autobiography.
Well, that's journalism. But a few years from now we may look back on the bombing that killed Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, along with more than 90 other Shia Muslims, as a pivotal event that tipped the balance towards civil war and the disintegration of Iraq.
The killing of Ayatollah Hakim, the country's most prominent Shia cleric, has been likened to murdering the Pope, but it's more serious than that because popes these days have little real influence.
Ayatollah Hakim was also head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), the leading Shia political organisation. A better comparison would be the murder of the Austrian archduke that sparked the first world war.
Before his return to Iraq in May, the ayatollah had spent more than 20 years in exile in Iran, where I met him last October, in the company of several other British journalists.
Getting to see him was quite a performance. Concrete blocks surrounded his headquarters building in Tehran to keep car bombers away. At the door, we were given thorough body and bag searches by guards who apologised profusely for their intrusion. In fact, he had far more protection than Iranian government ministers, who we were able to meet without anyone taking the slightest interest in our baggage.
Such security was obviously lacking at the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf last Friday - though the Americans say that was out of deference to the site's religious significance.
Ayatollah Hakim had every reason to expect a violent end. One wall in his Tehran headquarters was hung with 20 portraits, each frame adorned with a single red rose. These, an assistant explained, were the Hakim family's leading martyrs - including five of the ayatollah's brothers and six of his nephews. Altogether, 28 of his relatives had been killed by the Iraqi regime and 22 others had disappeared.
As he entered the room for our meeting, Ayatollah Hakim cut an impressive figure with his pale, ascetic face, a luxuriant grey beard and black turban. Multiple silver rings bedecked his fingers. He wore no shoes but his socks were spotless white.
He talked of his eagerness to remove Saddam Hussein but was also apprehensive about American military plans.
"Invasion is very dangerous for Iraq and the region," he said. "The people should make the change from inside Iraq."
He dismissed newspaper reports circulating at the time that the US was considering an extended period of military rule in Iraq rather than letting the Iraqis themselves take charge immediately after the overthrow of Saddam.
"The Americans gave their promises not to do such things," the ayatollah said, referring to a meeting he had last August with the US secretary of state, Colin Powell. If the Americans insisted on staying in Iraq, then Sciri, for one, would "make all efforts" to get them out, he added.
After the invasion, Iraqi self-rule was not forthcoming as apparently promised, but Ayatollah Hakim agreed - rather reluctantly - to let Sciri join the powerless new governing council, set up in July.
This brought no obvious reward from the Americans and placed him under further pressure from Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical young cleric based in the impoverished Shia district of Baghdad.
His assassination will certainly strengthen the hand of al-Sadr and may also force Sciri to adopt a more radical attitude towards the Americans in order to maintain its popular support. More importantly, though, it will also inflame Sunni-Shia tensions.
Iraq as a country was stitched together after the first world war, from three incompatible provinces of the old Ottoman Empire: the Arab and Persian Shia of the south and south-east, the Sunni Arabs in the middle and south-west, and the Kurds (who are also Sunnis) in the north.
Although the Sunni Arabs were the smallest of the three groups, Britain decided they should be dominant and installed a king from Saudi Arabia to rule the new country. This arrangement was more for the benefit of Britain's relations with Gulf rulers than for the Iraqis themselves; the difficulty of holding Iraq together was one reason why it ended up with such a brutal dictator as Saddam Hussein.
The underlying religious and ethnic tensions were kept at bay through decades of minority rule. Saddam Hussein suppressed them with utter ruthlessness but also, as the Americans are now learning, with considerable skill.
Fear of opening up a can of worms in Iraq was one of the main reasons why George Bush Sr held back from invading in 1991 after the liberation of Kuwait. Now, though, his son has lifted the lid off.
In the days of Saddam, Ayatollah Hakim's death might simply have gone down as one more in a long line of Shia martyrs, but circumstances have changed and he is unlikely to be forgotten so easily. After many years of oppression, the Shia of Iraq now have an opportunity to assert themselves - and his death provides the rationale.
A weekly bulletin issued by security consultants Kroll Associates last Thursday - the day before the assassination - carried the prescient heading: "Spectre of ethnic and inter-religious violence looming".
Besides highlighting a failed attempt to kill Ayatollah Hakim's uncle in Najaf, the report looked at the worsening situation in northern Iraq, where clashes erupted between Kurds and Turkoman tribesmen, leaving at least 12 people dead.
There was a danger, it said, that this could expand to encompass the Arab minority who were transplanted to the region by Saddam to dilute the Kurdish population.
"Tensions have been brewing between all three communities over control of the north, especially Kirkuk," it continued. "The Kurds' rush to redressing years of repression at the hands of the old regime has ignited major tensions."
It might not be quite so bad if these internal conflicts were a self-contained Iraqi matter, but they are not: they affect almost all of Iraq's neighbours.
The stateless Kurds, for example, are spread across four countries. Apart from the five million in Iraq, about 15 million live in Turkey, six million in Iran and up to 1.5 million in Syria - and Kurdish assertiveness in Iraq worries all of these nations.
Turkey is also concerned to protect the two million Turkomans of Iraq from the Kurds. The Turkomans, as their name suggests, speak Turkish and have an affinity with Ankara. If they are seriously threatened Turkey could feel obliged to intervene.
To the south, meanwhile, the predominantly Sunni countries - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Gulf states - worry about Shia assertiveness in Iraq. There are already some signs of Saudi attempts to bolster Iraq's Sunnis against the Shia.
Iran, on the other hand, has a natural affinity with Iraq's Shia and supports them to some extent. Its support, however, is limited because it does not want the Shia to become dominant in Iraq, for fear it would undermine Iran's own status as the centre of the Shia world.
The danger here is not just that Iraq will plunge into civil war but that the warring elements will find sponsorship from neighbouring countries, with all the attendant risks of a region-wide conflict.
The US, of course, has warned Iraq's neighbours to keep out, but it won't work. The fact of the matter is that the Americans have upset the status quo in Iraq, forcing its neighbours to reflect on the consequences and protect their own national interests as far as possible.
Instead of huffing and puffing about foreign subversion, the US, if it really wanted to avoid a civil war, would engage the neighbours in a dialogue about Iraq's future - now, before it's too late.
That, unfortunately, is impossible. Most of the neighbours do not recognise the American occupation as legitimate, or at least can't be seen to recognise it. The Americans in turn are unable to deal with the issues sensibly because of their loathing of Iran as a founder-member of the "Axis of Evil" and Syria as a member-in-waiting.
Once again the US, despite its self-appointed role as the world's policeman, is stuck. All it can do is pretend that everything will turn out fine in the end.
As President Bush assured the world on August 19 - just hours after the bombing of the UN building in Baghdad - "Iraq is on a irreversible course toward self-government and peace."http://www.guardian.co.uk/elsewhere/journalist/story/0,7792,1033461,00.html