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U.S. Planners Surprised by Strength of Iraqi Shiites

By Glenn Kessler and Dana Priest. Source: Washington Post April 23, 2003.

As Iraqi Shiite demands for a dominant role in Iraq's future mount, Bush administration officials say they underestimated the Shiites' organizational strength and are unprepared to prevent the rise of an anti-American, Islamic fundamentalist government in the country.

The burst of Shiite power -- as demonstrated by the hundreds of thousands who made a long-banned pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala yesterday -- has U.S. officials looking for allies in the struggle to fill the power vacuum left by the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

Hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims in Karbala to honor Imam Hussein's martyrdom
Hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims in Karbala to honor Imam Hussein's martyrdom. Source: Andrea Bruce Woodall, Washinton Post.

As the administration plotted to overthrow Hussein's government, U.S. officials said this week, it failed to fully appreciate the force of Shiite aspirations and is now concerned that those sentiments could coalesce into a fundamentalist government. Some administration officials were dazzled by Ahmed Chalabi, the prominent Iraqi exile who is a Shiite and an advocate of a secular democracy. Others were more focused on the overriding goal of defeating Hussein and paid little attention to the dynamics of religion and politics in the region.

"It is a complex equation, and the U.S. government is ill-equipped to figure out how this is going to shake out," a State Department official said. "I don't think anyone took a step backward and asked, 'What are we looking for?' The focus was on the overthrow of Saddam Hussein."

Complicating matters is that the United States has virtually no diplomatic relationship with Iran, leaving U.S. officials in the dark about the goals and intentions of the government in Tehran. The Iranian government is the patron of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the leading Iraqi Shiite group.

Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, a major strategic goal of the United States has been to contain radical Shiite fundamentalism. In the 1980s, the United States backed Hussein as a bulwark against Iran. But by this year, the drive to topple Hussein -- who had suppressed Iraq's Shiite majority for decades -- loomed as a much more important objective for the administration.

U.S. intelligence reports reaching top officials throughout the government this week said the Shiites appear to be much more organized than was thought. On Monday, one meeting of generals and admirals at the Pentagon evolved into a spontaneous teach-in on Iraq's Shiites and the U.S. strategy for containing Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq.

The administration hopes the U.S.-led war in Iraq will lead to a crescent of democracies in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, the Israeli-occupied territories and Saudi Arabia. But it could just as easily spark a renewed fervor for Islamic rule in the crescent, officials said.

"This is a 25-year project," one three-star general officer said. "Everyone agreed it was a huge risk, and the outcome was not at all clear."

The CIA has cultivated some Shiite clerics, but not many, and not for very long. The CIA is helping to move clerics safely into towns where they can build a political base. In Najaf, for instance, agency case officers worked with a couple of clerics.

"We don't want to allow Persian fundamentalism to gain any foothold," a senior administration official said. "We want to find more moderate clerics and move them into positions of influence."

One major problem is that Hussein executed hundreds of Shiite clerics and exiled thousands more, leaving behind few Shiite civic or religious leaders of national standing.

Shortly after Baghdad fell, Abdul Majid Khoei, a London-based Shiite cleric who was working with U.S. Special Forces, was stabbed to death at a shrine in Najaf, apparently by followers of a young anti-American Shiite leader. They also surrounded the Najaf home of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the nation's top Shiite cleric, and ordered him to leave the city before tribal elders persuaded them to disperse.

U.S. officials are hoping to combat fundamentalism by helping the Iraqis build a secular education system. Before 1991, Iraq had what was regarded as one of the finest education systems in the region, but years of economic sanctions have devastated it.

"The most radical aspects of Islam are in places with no education at all but the Koran," an official said. "There is no math, no culture. You counter that [fundamentalism] by doing something with the education system."

The Shiites of Iraq make up about 60 percent of the population, compared with less than 20 percent for the Sunnis that have long dominated Iraqi political life. Shiite Muslims, who make up less than 15 percent of the world's 1 billion Muslims, formed their own sect shortly after the death of Muhammad, founder of Islam, in 632.

While Shiites are the majority in Iran and Iraq, the Shiites in Iraq are Arab, not Persian, giving U.S. officials hope that a strong sense of Iraqi nationalism and a tradition of resisting the concept of a single supreme Shiite ruler will keep Persian fundamentalism in check. "There is a big difference, a tremendous difference, between Persian and Arab Shiites," a U.S. official said.

Indeed, some experts believe ending the suppression of Iraqi Shiites will begin to turn the center of the religion away from Iran. The shrines of two of its most revered imams -- the Shiite successors to Mohammed -- are in Najaf and Karbala.

Some U.S. intelligence analysts and Iraq experts said they warned the Bush administration before the war about vanquishing Hussein's government without having anything to replace it. But officials said the concerns were either not heard or fell too low on the priority list of postwar planning.

Chalabi's influence, particularly with senior policymakers at the Pentagon, helped play down the prospects for trouble, some officials said. "They really did believe he is a Shiite leader," although he had been out of the country for 45 years, a U.S. official said. "They thought, 'We're set, we've got a Shiite -- check the box here.' "

"We're flying blind on this. It's a classic case of politics and intelligence," said Walter P. "Pat" Lang, a former Defense Intelligence Agency specialist in Middle Eastern affairs. "In this case, the policy community have absolutely whipped the intel community, or denigrated it so much."

U.S. officials have tried to make inroads with Iraq's most important Shiite group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), starting with contacts in Kuwait about five years ago. A senior representative of SCIRI met with Vice President Cheney in August when U.S. officials gathered leaders of the Iraqi opposition groups in Washington.

But SCIRI, which is based in Tehran and is closely linked with the Iranian government, boycotted the first U.S.-sponsored meeting of Iraqi political and religious leaders in the town of Ur to discuss the country's political future. Over the years, "there was not as much contact as there should have been," the State Department official said.

"They expected a much warmer reception, and as a result it would be unnecessary for them to deal with some of these issues," said Kenneth M. Pollack, a Brookings Institution scholar, who was one of President Bill Clinton's top Iraq specialists. "That flawed assumption is at the heart of some of the reasons they are scrambling now."