Iraq-US-Shiites, sched-feature "Bogeyman" of Shiite state in Iraq should be laid to rest
KUWAIT CITY, Feb 27 (AFP) - In a marble-walled sanctuary bearing paintings of white-turbaned sheikhs, Kuwaiti Shiite Muslims have been praying for a dozen years to be able to return to their holy shrines across the border in Iraq. "We pray every day here that the door will open once again," said Ahmad Bouhamad, as he and other Shiites awaited an evening of religious instruction recently at the ornate building called a Hussainiya. The door to Iraq has been closed since the 1991 Gulf war to end Baghdad's occupation of Kuwait, but Bouhamad is well aware it could reopen soon if US-led forces launch a new war to topple Saddam Hussein. His desire to visit the shrines in Najaf and Karbala -- especially during the upcoming Shiite festival of Ashura -- highlights a central bond of Shiite Muslims, who have complained of persecution and discrimination not only in Iraq but across the Sunni-dominated Arab world. In turn, Sunni Muslims have long distrusted them.
However, analysts dismissed fears that Saddam's overthrow would spark Shiite separatism in Iraq and destabilize other Arab states with large Shiite populations, such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Lebanon. "The bogeyman of a Shiite state emerging in Iraq as a satrapy of the Iranian clerical regime -- the fear that paralyzed American power back in 1991 -- should be laid to rest," political scientist Fouad Ajami wrote in the January-February edition of Foreign Affairs.
Non-Arab Iran, where Shiites represent the overwhelming majority, underwent an Islamic revolution in 1979, which Arabs feared would be exported. "The Iranian revolution's promise has clearly faded," wrote the scholar at Johns Hopkins University.
"Then, too, the Shia of Iraq must be seen for what they are: Arabs and Iraqis through and through." Ajami doubted that the leading Iraqi Shiite opposition group, the Tehran-based Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, could build the right bridges with the Kurds and Sunnis. He expected instead the rise of a "secular" Shiism, as in Lebanon. "In the scheme of historical development of the Shia tradition, the triumph of clerics has been a relatively recent phenomenon -- more a feature of Iran since 1979 than of the Arab world," Ajami wrote. His arguments were echoed by other analysts.
Antoine Basbous, at the Paris-based Observatory of Arab Countries, expects the Shia, who make up 55-60 percent of Iraq's 23 million people, to eventually replace Sunni Muslims as the dominant political force in Baghdad if Saddam is overthrown. "Their hour may have come," he said. But while doubting that an Iranian-backed Shiite state would emerge and wreak havoc in the region, he warned the United States to keep Iraq's ethnic and religious rivalries at bay as it oversees a long and tough transition to federalism and democracy.
Sunni Muslim Ghanim al-Najjar, a political scientist at Kuwait University, and Ali al-Baghli, a Shiite human rights lawyer who was Kuwait's oil minister in the early 1990s, both said Kuwait's Shiites were loyal to the Sunni royal family. While several Kuwaiti Sunnis admitted privately they disliked Shiites, they raised no alarms about their representing a fifth column. "There is still tension, but it is not as it used to be," Najjar added. The analysts and other Kuwaitis said ties between the two communities have vastly improved since the revolution in Tehran, the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war and the 1991 Shiite uprising in Iraq. Baghli said Sunnis had feared Iran had orchestrated the uprising that erupted in southern Iraq following Saddam's defeat in the 1991 Gulf war and that "a Shia state would be created in the south." However, they realized later that a "big mistake" had been made when the United States failed to help an uprising that might have toppled Saddam, who is feared by both Sunni and Shiite Kuwaitis, Baghli said. The Shia in Iraq and Kuwait are "loyal" to their own countries, he said. "They may have sympathy with Iran but never unite with Iran." Bouhamad, the Kuwaiti Shiite interviewed at the Hussainiya, demonstrated his community's ties to Iran when he said he has been visiting the Iranian holy city of Mashhad, while Najaf and Karbala remained off limits.
When asked how he would feel if Shias were freed from Saddam's rule, Bouhamad replied he would be happy "not only for the Shia, but for all Muslims in the country. This system is a nightmare for the Iraqis and the whole region."