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Published: Monday, 8/30/2004

U.S. is oblivious to Iraq's religious, ethnic dynamics

The standoff in Najaf between the militia of firebrand preacher Muqtada al-Sadr and the Iraqi authorities has dragged on for many months now. The presence in the city center of one of the most sacred Shia shrines poses problems that are hard to comprehend and difficult to understand for the uninitiated. While most eyes are on Najaf, other population centers are also seeing increasing violence.

The recent return to Iraq from Britain of Ali Hussaini Sistani, the most senior Shia cleric in Iraq, has introduced another element of suspense and uncertainty into the equation. He had gone there for immediate medical attention. Upon his return he has asked Shias from all over Iraq to march toward Najaf. This may turn out to be a very smart move on the part of the elderly Ayatollah Sistani. It could present a face-saving opportunity for both al-Sadr and the Iraqi government. With tens of thousands of Iraqis pouring into the ancient city, the fighting would have to stop and al Sadr might find it convenient to relinquish further claim to the shrine to Ayatollah Sistani as he had promised earlier. Whether he would also disband his Mahdi army, as his militia is known, is hard to predict. He has said that only the Mahdi could disband Mahdi's army.

Who is Mahdi? The concept of the return or arrival of a religious figure - al-Mahdi (literally "the guided one") - toward the end of time to bring righteousness to a corrupt world is deeply rooted in Shia religious philosophy, and some Sunnis also believe in the concept. It has close resemblance to the Christian idea of the second coming of Christ. Where as the Qur'an is silent about Mahdi, it does mention the return to the world of Christ toward the end of time. In the Hadith literature (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) the arrival of Mahdi is mentioned. However, many scholars consider those sayings later inventions fabricated in response to different political situations and not authentic.

For most of Shias the real Mahdi is one of the imams from their ancient history who mysteriously disappeared in northwest Arabia in the 7th century and they still await his return after 14 centuries. Throughout Islamic history however there have been others, mostly charismatic reformers, who have laid claim to the title. Some used the title to consolidate political power or resist foreign invasions and occupations during the colonial era.

The most memorable person in recent history was Muhammad Ahmad, a young Sudanese who led an uprising against the Turko-Egyptian-British occupation of Sudan. The fall of Khartoum in 1885 was followed by the massacre of the British and Egyptian troops. Now, more than a century later, history seems to be repeating itself in Iraq. Ancient paradigms still govern people's lives and dictate their responses to circumstances beyond their control.

One wonders if our policy-makers paid any attention to the complexities of Iraqi society before ordering the invasion of that country. Probably not. In their self-serving zeal and self-convincing arguments to go to war, they were oblivious to the religious and ethnic dynamics of the country or perhaps they were just inept. Or both. It is ironic that of all the ethnic patchwork in Iraq, Shias, as the majority group, stood to gain the most in a new Iraq. Now they are as angry and discontented as the Sunnis.

The Iraqis are equating the invasion of their country and the resultant insurgency in religious terms. Even though they are tired of unrest and violence, on balance they oppose the occupation. A violence-prone country does not lend itself to nation-building by the victors. So both sides are trapped in a no-win situation.

One thing has become increasingly clear, however. Heavy-handed military response has not worked and will not work. Now our commanders on the ground are saying this openly. "We are really good at combat operations, killing and breaking things," says Major General Pete Chiarelli, responsible for policing Baghdad. "But if all I am doing is this, I will make more enemies than I kill."

To turn enemies into friends the United States must cede to the world at large and get the U.N. involved in Iraq. Otherwise the struggle between the theology of neoconservatism and the ancient religious paradigms would not end so easily.



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