21 March 2003
By Gwynne Dyer
“Wimps go to Baghdad,” they say in neo-conservative circles in Washington. “Real men go to Tehran.” It sounds tough at dinner parties, and the macho intellectuals who talk like that never worry that genuinely hard men can overhear their silly chatter. But they can, and they are already taking measures to protect themselves. They live in Iran.
Iran’s Islamist government is split between the moderate reformers around President Mohammed Khatemi and the radical mullahs around Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but it is the mullahs who control the army and foreign policy. They are terrified by the imminent arrival of the US army on Iran’s western frontier, only a couple of hours’ drive from the country’s biggest oilfields, especially since President Bush has put Iran on his ‘axis of evil’ hit-list. So the more trouble the United States has in Iraq, the better.
The biggest problem facing an American occupation regime in Iraq is the fact that the Sunni Arab minority, only 17 percent of the population, has dominated the government and the army for generations. The Shia Arabs have been largely excluded from power and are relatively poor, but they are almost two-thirds of the population and in a democratic Iraq they would automatically dominate the government. The problem is that their sympathies lie with their fellow Shias in Iran, and a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad is not exactly what the US had in mind as an outcome to this war.
That prospect, even more than the threat of Kurdish separatism, is why the United States has frozen the exiled Iraqi opposition parties out of the post-war administration of Iraq. In the initial stages the US intends to rule Iraq through its own military government, replacing the top two layers of the existing civil administration with American generals and colonels. Since that administration is overwhelmingly Sunni, the Kurds and the Shia Arabs will be largely frozen out again — and the Shia will be especially unhappy about that.
The first President Bush incited both the Kurds of the northern Iraq and the Shia of the south to revolt against Saddam Hussein at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, but both groups were betrayed when US forces did not support them. The Kurds managed to hold on to most of the traditional Kurdish areas of northern Iraq and have been free from Saddam Hussein’s control for the past dozen years — but the Shia in the south were massacred and utterly crushed.
Thousands of Iraqi Shia fled across the frontier into Iran, where the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq took responsibility for their lives. SCIRI was founded twenty years ago at the height of the Iran-Iraq war under the patronage of the Islamic revolutionary government in Iran. It is led by Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, who lives in exile in Tehran, and its purpose is to bring about an Islamic revolution, not a secular democracy, in Iraq.
SCIRI has an extensive underground network of support in the Shia parts of Iraq, and it has all the resources of the Iranian state behind it. The Badr Division, an army of up to 10,000 Shia fighters recruited from Iraqi refugees, has been poised just across the border for years. SCIRI has no intention of allowing the United States to rule Iraq even for a day: it will resist, and it will do so in a distinctively Shia way.
Islamists of the Shia persuasion, though bitterly hostile to Sunni extremists like al-Qaeda, are equally adept at violence. The very first suicide truck bomb, the one that killed 242 US Marines in a Beirut barracks in 1983 and caused the rapid withdrawal of American troops from Lebanon, was a Shia innovation, and it was the Shia guerilla organisation Hizbollah that forced the chaotic Israeli retreat from southern Lebanon in 2000. But an even greater threat to the American occupation of Iraq is the Shia tradition of martyrdom.
The Iranian revolution of 1978 was in some ways a precursor to the wave of non-violent democratic revolutions that has transformed the world in the past couple of decades, but it had a special Shia twist. Every forty days the unarmed crowds came out on the streets in mourning for the last group of non-violent protesters killed by the Shah’s army, taunting his soldiers to kill again. The soldiers did kill, time after time, with the civilians almost willingly submitting to martyrdom — until the Iranian army finally grew sick of so much blood and abandoned the American-backed monarch.
It was an extraordinarily effective tactic, and within months of the inevitable American victory we will probably be seeing it again in all the Shia cities of southern Iraq. It may even spread to Baghdad, a once Sunni-dominated city where the poorer quarters east of the river are now overwhelmingly Shia.
American troops will not respond with the clumsy and murderous tactics of the Shah’s army, for their leaders have all been taught more sophisticated methods of crowd control. But there will also be terrorism, and given US paranoia about ‘terrorists’ and the Bush administration’s tendency to lump all its Arab and Muslim enemies together, the Shia extremists may get what they are seeking sooner or later. One massacre, and then they are in business.
SCIRI’s leaders are moving back into Iraq right now. Two years from now, they will either be ruling Iraq or struggling to break away from it (and take most of the oil with them).
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“That prospect…about that”; and “Islamists…martyrdom”)