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.

The martyrdom of the founding imams, which, significantly, took place in Iraq, profoundly shaped the politics and theology of Shiism. While there are doctrinal differences within its sub-sects, all Shiites believe their imams are the rightful heirs of the Prophet, and that Ali and his descendents possessed spiritual and political authority, including infallibility and special powers to discern hidden meanings in the Qur'an. The persecution of Shiites throughout history, they believe, necessitates hiding the true faith and outwardly professing Sunni Islam in places where there is no freedom of religion.

Shiism became the official religion in neighboring Iran in the 16th century, but Iraq remained for several centuries under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, a Sunni state that made significant efforts to counteract Shiism. At the same time, mystical Sufism competed with Shiism against strict, orthodox Sunnism of the religious establishment.

The gradual settling of Iraq's nomadic Arab tribes, coupled with itinerant preachers' use of emotional depictions of the Ashura to stir hearts, helped to spread Shiism in the 19th century. However, ethnic, cultural and political differences with Iran developed Iraqi Shiism along a different trajectory than its Iranian counterpart, and to this day their social and political views can differ significantly.

Another new influence arrived in the 19th century. Iraq had become strategically important to Europeans, especially the British, for its position along the land route to India. When the Ottoman Empire entered World War I, Britain took Iraq, laying siege to Baghdad at huge cost in lives. After the armistice, the British were awarded the country under a League of Nations mandate.

It's often been said that Iraq's borders reflect British imperial needs--oil and roads--rather than national feeling. But Iraq is not an entirely arbitrary creation. The three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra had deep and complex relations for centuries, and were perceived as one large unit by the Late Ottoman Period. Britain's most significant contribution to the Iraqi state, perhaps, was their installation of a foreign, conservative Sunni monarch who was not supported or liked by Shiites. Within a few years of its coming, British colonialism had cemented a new Iraqi identity that to this day supercedes ethnic and religious affiliations.

Most important, British policy was implemented by extreme violence and autocratic rule, including the repeated use of the kind of poison gas and large-scale aerial bombings of civilian targets that have made Saddam Hussein infamous.
As a recent biography of Hussein points out, British rule "administered a shock to the country's social system from which it has never recovered. It was the British conquest of Iraq which set the stage for what is happening today."