Shiite Leadership Clash in Iran, Iraq
By HAMZA HENDAWI
The Associated Press
Thursday, July 15, 2004; 4:39 AM
BAGHDAD, Iraq - For centuries, enmity between Arabs and Persians has shaped much of the Middle East - from the Arab conquests of the 7th century to the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s.
Now, with Shiites empowered in postwar Iraq, the gloves are off again. But this time, the antagonists are the Shiite ayatollahs of Iraq, a mainly Arab country, and Iran, formerly Persia.
At stake is the leadership of the world's estimated 170 million Shiites - and the outcome will have profound consequences not only for the two nations but the entire Islamic faith.
At the heart of the conflict is a rivalry between the holy cities of Najaf in Iraq and Qom in neighboring Iran.
A victory by Najaf's "quietist" school of thought, which places a cleric's spiritual calling ahead of involvement in politics, could deal a serious blow to the claim of legitimacy by Iran's ruling clergy. It could also provide a counter-ideology to the militant political Islam adopted by some Sunni Muslim groups in the region and which are behind the terrorism of recent years.
Iraq's Shiites have emerged from decades of oppression by a Sunni Arab minority when Saddam Hussein's regime fell 15 months ago. As the majority, they are now poised to dominate the country politically after a general election due in January.
Najaf's senior clerics refuse to be publicly drawn into the Najaf-Qom rivalry, but they don't conceal the nationalist undertones involved.
"It is the Shiites of Iraq who spread the faith in Iran," boasts Mohammed Hussein al-Hakim, son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Said Hakim, one of Najaf's four top clerics. "Shiites appeared in Iraq centuries before there were any Shiites in Iran."
Similar sentiments are indirectly reflected by ordinary Iraqis, eyeing with suspicion Shiite political parties known to be closely linked to Iran or created there by politicians who found refuge there during Saddam's 23-year rule.
"For hundreds of years, the Iranians prevented Arabs from assuming the Shiite marjaiyah (top clerics)," laments Qays al-Khaz'ali, an aide of young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militant movement has gained much of its popularity because of his repeated boasts of Arab descent and scathing criticism of Iranian-backed politicians and groups.
Iraq is the 7th century birthplace of Shiism, a faith born of a dispute over who succeeds the Prophet Muhammad after his death. It's home to the sect's most revered sites in Najaf and Karbala south of Baghdad and Samarra to the north of the Iraqi capital.
Shiites, however, did not become a majority in Iraq until the 19th century through massive conversions of Arab tribesmen frustrated by the injustices of the Sunni Ottoman rulers.
In Iran, Shiism became the official religion early in the 16th century but Shiites only became a majority in the 1800s. Ideological differences between the two communities always existed, but they were driven farther apart in the 20th century.
During 35 years of Saddam's Baath party rule, Iraq's Shiite majority was brutally oppressed and tens of thousands of Shiites, including clerics, were killed, jailed or deported.
© 2004 The Associated Press