The Shiite Factor

How will Iraq's persecuted majority behave when the Saddam era is over?

In any effort to rebuild society in post-war Iraq, the country's Shiite Muslims will be the linchpin. Will they attempt to import an Islamic revolution based on the Shiite regime next door in Iran, as many policymakers fear? Will they cooperate gratefully with U.S.? Or will they chart an independent course that challenges everyone's expectations?

Despite savage oppression inside Iraq and kinship with Shiites outside it, Iraq's Shiites consider themselves Iraqis first. History suggests they'll support a united Iraq, but only one free of foreign influence, and one that recognizes their political rights.

Although Shiites comprise only about 15 percent of the world Muslim population (the other 85 percent belongs largely to the Sunni sect), they constitute upwards of two-thirds of Iraq's 23 million people. Sunni Kurds, with 20 percent, and Sunni Arabs, with 15 percent, make up the rest. Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Pakistan, and Syria all have significant Shiite minorities, but only in the small island emirate of Bahrain, Iraq and Iran are they a majority. Shiites have been suppressed and persecuted anywhere they are a minority. Due to peculiarities of its history, Iraq is the only country where they are a persecuted majority.


Shiism emerged as a political and religious movement in the first decades after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, splitting from Sunni Islam over a controversy about who should succeed Muhammad, who left no written instructions on this issue. The word "shi'a" means "partisans" and refers to those who followed Ali bin Abu Talib, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, who became Islam's fourth Caliph, or post-Muhammad leader.

Ali, who was among the first converts to Islam, was passed over three times for the caliphate in favor of older, better-connected figures. He became the fourth, and last, of the "Rightly Guided Caliphs" only after the Caliph Uthman was assassinated in 655 C.E., and then Ali was assassinated himself six years later. His son Hussein is the next great figure of Shiism. On the tenth day of the month of Muaharram, Shiites worldwide, still reenact the Ashura, the massacre of Hussein and 70 of his family at Karbala, about 45 miles southwest of Baghdad.

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Mark LeVine
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