An Islamic Republic in Iraq?
April 2003

Commentary by Rick Francona

Al-Najaf, Iraq

Soon after the “liberation” of Iraq, or more correctly, the collapse of organized resistance from the Saddam regime, many in Iraq’s majority Shi’a community began demanding not only their share of power in a new government, but also the establishment of an Islamic republic.  Such reports evoke the specter of another Iran – an oil-rich, anti-West theocracy.  What are the prospects that this might happen?

As Iraqis forge a new government for the country, inevitably there will be major differences between the factions that make up the population.  No group is more important than the Shi’a Muslims that make up the majority – 60 to 65 percent, or over 14 million people – of the population but who have had no voice in the political life of the country.

The size of the Shi’a majority is even more pronounced when the Kurds and other ethnic groups, which are almost exclusively Sunni, are factored out of the equation. Among the Iraqi Arabs, Shi’a make up about 75 percent of the population.  As such, they bore the brunt of the casualties in Saddam Hussein’s eight-year war with Iran and again during the first Persian Gulf War against the U.S.-led coalition in 1991.  Following the end of that war, the Shi’a were the first to revolt against Saddam Hussein.  They were brutally defeated.  

Shi'a and Sunni

Shi’a Muslims make up 10 to 15 percent of the of the world’s second largest religion. The difference between Sunni and Shi’a is as old as the religion itself and revolved around the issue of succession – who would follow Muhammad as the leader of the faithful?  The Arabic word for “one who follows or succeeds,” - khalifah (caliph) - was adopted as the title of the leader. 

Many believed that the caliph should be a family member, someone in the bloodline of the Prophet. Muhammad, however, had no sons, leaving no male heir to assume the caliphate upon his death in 632.  Muhammad did have a daughter, Fatima, who was married to Muhammad’s cousin ‘Ali. The people who favored the selection of ‘Ali as the caliph were called the Shi’at ‘Ali, the “partisans of ‘Ali.”

The other school of thought, held by many prominent Muslims of the day, was that the caliph should be drawn from one of the senior and learned members of the faith.  These were the Sunnis, the traditionalists. 

The Sunni position prevailed and the first three caliphs were not of Muhammad’s bloodline.  Finally, a convergence occurred in 656 when ‘Ali was named the fourth Caliph.  ‘Ali was soon murdered – the Shi’a recognized his son Hasan as the next in line, but this was rejected by the Sunni leaders in Damascus.  Hasan abdicated in favor of these rulers. 

Hasan’s younger brother Hussein assumed the Shi’a imamate, presaging what became the major divide in Islamic history. In 680, Hussein was killed in battle against superior Sunni forces in Karbala’, Iraq on the tenth day of the month of Muharram.  This day is commemorated by all Shi’a as ‘Ashura (literally, “the tenth”) as a day of mourning and perfidy on the part of the Sunnis. 

Hussein is buried in Karbala’ – the Hussein mosque there has become the site of one of the holiest ceremonies in Shi’a Islam, the annual pilgrimage forty days after the anniversary of his death.  This year, that day is April 23.

The Call for Islamic Rule – the tyranny of the majority

In liberated Iraq, especially during the heightened religious periods of ‘Ashura and the Karbala’ pilgrimage, there are calls for the establishment of an Islamic state.  However, Islamic scholars estimate that only about 20 percent of Iraq’s Shi’a actually advocate the creation of an Islamic Republic in the country, or about 12 percent of the total population of the country.  This minority – largely the clerics – is very vocal and receives disproportionate media coverage.

The remainder of the population - most of the Shi’a themselves, the powerful Kurdish groups in the north that have lived in autonomy for 12 years, and the Sunnis in the central part of the country - favor a more secular state.  In addition, there are a small number of Christians that must be considered.  Iraq will certainly be a Muslim state, but not an Islamic theocracy.

More importantly, perhaps, are the views of Iraq’s neighbors, not to mention the United States, whose over 200,000 troops in the region give it a say in the formation of a new government.  Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has already stated that the new Iraqi government will be based on democratic principles and will not be an Islamic republic. 

Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait would be extremely wary of another oil-rich Islamic republic in the region, this one on their borders and with a history of invading or attacking its neighbors.  All these governments worry about the potential export of the revolution to their population.

The Iran factor

Only Iran favors the notion of an Islamic republic, and is actively supporting those inside Iraq calling for it.  Iranian presidetn Muhammad Khatami has declared that Iran will not recognize and American-installed interim authority in Iraq.  

As happened immediately after the cease-fire in 1991, Iran is sending members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Ministry of Intelligence into the Iraqi Shi’a community to stir up anti-American rhetoric and generate calls for the creation of an Islamic state.  This is in addition to the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), who boycotted the April 15 meeting in An Nasiriyah.

The last thing Iran wants is a pro-western government – be it a democracy or otherwise - in Iraq.  A pro-western government in Iraq basically surrounds Iran (and Syria) with governments that would be somewhat friendly to the United States.

The next weeks and months will be critical to Iraq’s future as the forces of secular Islam and Iranian-supported Islamists attempt to create a government that satisfies the widely disparate groups that make up Iraq.

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