Will A Shiite Split Bring Chaos In Iraq?

It's the most striking recent development in troubled Iraq: Ayatollah Ali Husaini Sistani, once a retiring religious figure, has emerged as a national symbol of standing up to the U.S. occupying authorities. His insistence that the new Iraqi transitional government, which is to take power on July 1, be chosen through direct elections rather than caucuses largely controlled by the U.S. and its local friends has galvanized Iraqi politics. It has also sparked concerns that the Najaf-based Shiite cleric will dominate Iraq's politics -- just as Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor, Ali Khamenei, did in Iran.

Shiite Factions

Yet chaos in Iraq is a far more immediate danger than the rise of a monolithic Shiite regime. Sistani's own aides, such as Fadhil Bahrululum, secretary general of the Ayatollah's Alulbayt Foundation in London insist that "we don't want a government like the Iranian government." Sistani hails from a school that believes clerics should distance themselves from politics. He wants elections so that the new government will be recognized as legitimate. But it's difficult to predict how the Shiites -- who constitute up to 65% of Iraq's population but are not well-organized politically -- might vote. "The Shiites are divided," says Ghanim Jawad, a London-based Iraqi activist.

Many Shiites consider Sistani a religious authority whose pronouncements on everything from business dealings to marital relations must be obeyed. But he's not the only game in town. Many youthful Shiites, for instance, are enamored of Muqtada Sadr, a firebrand who scorns the U.S. and Israel and advocates an Islamic state. Sadr supporters are blamed for killing the London-based Ayatollah Abdel Majid al-Khoei when he returned to Najaf with American assistance last April. Sadr followers have also clashed with Sistani's people and with another faction, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose leader Muhammad Baqr al Hakim was killed last August.

Tensions are likely to keep rising as the U.S.'s June 30 deadline for handing power to the Iraqis approaches. Whatever government takes over will be enormously influential in shaping Iraq's future. Conflict could be sparked as ethnic or political groups jockey for advantage. Recent ethnic violence in Kirkuk and the Feb. 2 bombings of the two major Kurdish parties in Irbil may be signs of coming storms. Some analysts even worry that the Baathists, who remain a cohesive force, will regain influence. Ayad Allawi, an ex-Baathist with ties to the CIA, is already security supremo on the Iraqi Governing Council.

The next few weeks will be crucial in determining how smooth the transition to self-government is. A key question: Can Sistani be persuaded to ease his demands if U.N. experts conclude that elections by June 30 aren't feasible? Sistani may be willing to back a U.N. formula that would seem less U.S.-influenced than the proposed caucuses.

It will require great skill to pull off a peaceful handover. The U.S., the U.N., and top Iraqi pols have to be sure not to lose the Shiites. They also have to keep Kurdish national aspirations under control and bring Sunni Muslims, the big losers in the power shift, into the political arena. Huge political battles lie ahead. The trick will be to keep them from spilling into the streets.

By Stanley Reed in London

Edited by Rose Brady

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