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."

Given this atmosphere, it should have surprised no one when Shiite clerics of Najaf and Karbala played a prominent role along with their Sunni countrymen in the 1920 rebellion against the British-imposed regime, in a uprising that killed nearly 500 British troops and some 9,000 Iraqis. United around a common enemy, Shiites had put their national and ethnic Arab identities ahead of their religion.

In 1958, the monarchy was overthrown in a military coup led by General Abd al-Karim Qassem. The al-Qassem regime itself was deposed in 1963 by the secular "Ba'ath" (in Arabic, "resurgence") party with crucial support of the CIA, who favored its anti-Communist ideology. This new and brutal regime was quickly removed from power by a more moderate faction, but returned to power in 1968, again with CIA help.

The Ba'ath regime was effectively controlled by Saddam Hussein by the mid-1970s. Saddam's was essentially a Sunni regime that systematized the traditional mistrust of the Shiites. His paranoia became more acute with the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which explicitly sought to export itself as a model for other countries. Saddam sought to nip this problem in the bud by invading Iran before, so he thought, Ayatollah Khomeini could establish a grip on the country.

In a sense, Hussein was right: religious opposition to his power came mostly from the Shiites. Their most important organization, Al-Dawah al Islamiyah (the Islamic Call), was established by Shiite clergy in the early 1960s to oppose the Ba'ath regime's policies. In return, the Ba'athists purged the Shiite community in al-Najaf in 1977 and executed five leading clerics, including Iraq's supreme religious authority. This led to the formation of the al-Badr Brigade, which began a guerilla battle against the Iraqi government.

And yet the vast majority of Iraqi Shiites remained loyal to Iraq, fighting alongside their Sunni compatriots against their Iranian co-religionists for the eight bloody years of the Iran-Iraq War. This may have been due in part to doctrinal differences between Iraqi and Iranian Shiism, but it also bolsters the idea that ethnicity and nationalism had trumped religious sectarianism in Iraq. Not only are Iraqi Shiites Iraqis first, they are also Arab rather than Persian.

On a more practical level, as the Iran-Iraq war progressed in 1980s, the Hussein regime improved his treatment of the Shiite population. Government positions were increasingly open to Shiites, while the general economic and educational position of the community also improved.

It was only after the 1991 Gulf War that the Shiites rebelled, and the result were disastrous. The uprising in the south, encouraged, then abandoned by the United States, was decisively put down, with indiscriminate killing of upwards of 100,000 people. The American "betrayal," and Hussein's unprecedented brutality, taught the Shiites, and all Iraqis, that challenging the Ba'ath regime was risky as long as Hussein retained any control.

Since then, the decade-long economic sanctions have led to the deaths of half a million mostly poor and Shiite Iraqis. As Hussein drained the Shiites' southern marshland communities, too, the international community has failed to respond. These losses have reinforced the Shiites' traditional sense of oppression. Throughout their history, periods of persecution have triggered their withdrawal from political activity.

Not that the Shiites have failed to fight back altogether. A near-fatal attack on Hussein's son Udai was mounted in 1996. Two years later, Saddam's second-in-command, Izzat Ibrahim, was nearly assassinated, and large-scale violence erupted in Shiite cities in 1999, following the killing of several Shiite religious leaders.

In July 2002, as preparations for an American invasion gathered steam, a broad Shiite coalition put forth a "Declaration of the Shia of Iraq," projecting its consensus view of a post-Hussein Iraq. Its signatories "believe that Iraq can only be revived if its future is based on the three principles of democracy, federalism and community rights." The Declaration called for rejecting sectarian-based political power and authority in Iraq, and "granting of full political and civil rights to the Shiites."

The war is unfolding too quickly to offer any precise analysis of the Shiites' current position. Reports of rebellions in the south, if true, are on one hand not surprising;recent history will likely prevent them from rising until they are convinced the regime is mortally weakened. But it's not too early to make some guesses about how the Shiites will approach the post-war changes. The promises of the 2002 Declaration, plus the practical fact splitting Iraq into "state-lets" would alienate Baghdad's large Shiite population, suggest that a united and democratic Iraq is the Shiites' best answer.

What's certain is that Iraqi Shiites won't support a long-term foreign presence on Iraqi soil. Already, Shiite leader Ayatollah al-Hakim has made reference the 1920 rebellion. The United States's difficult relationship with the Shiite government of Iran, as well as American support for Sunni Iraqi opposition forces, is likely to mitigate any gratitude the Shiites feel toward the conquering forces. An American Mandate in post-war Iraq could indeed find itself repeating the uprising of 1920, or the Shiite attacks on a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in the 1980s. If it is not careful, the United States could wind up making allies for Al Qaeda out of its natural enemies.

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