For Iraq's Shiites, a Dream Deferred Breeds Mistrust of U.S.

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 2, 2007

BAGHDAD -- As a dull winter sun nibbled away at the chilly morning, Hussein Lefta stood beside the Rahman Mosque. Before him, Shiite Muslim worshipers passed through an emerald green gate and shuffled across a stone-covered field. Behind him the giant gray shrine rose above Mansour, a mainly Sunni Arab neighborhood that was once home to the elite of the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

Built to proclaim Hussein's glory, the mosque is one of the most visible symbols of his fall. Thousands of oppressed Shiites took control of the unfinished building following the U.S.-led invasion. On that day in April 2003, Shiites say, their history was reshaped, their politics reborn and their faith reinvigorated .

Lefta, 42, was among the many Shiites who thanked the Americans for their freedom. He dreamed that his community, Iraq's majority, would exert the political influence the Sunnis had long denied it.

Today, the mosque is still incomplete, as are Lefta's dreams.

"The Americans are afraid the Shia will take over Iraq," he explained.

Iraq's Shiites are at a crossroads in their rise from oppression to power and in their relationship with the United States. In a nation riven by violence and competing visions, they feel as if they have been handed the keys to their house but never allowed to settle down. Bitter personality rifts have undermined their ability to govern. And they have yet to bridge the growing divide separating them from the Sunnis and further deepened by Hussein's execution on Saturday.

As President Bush seeks a new strategy for Iraq, many Shiites express deep mistrust of the United States and its intentions. In U.S. efforts to engage Iraq's disaffected Sunnis, they perceive betrayal. And in U.S. pressure to dismantle Shiite militias, they see an attempt to weaken their bulwark against Sunni insurgents.

Against this backdrop, Shiite leaders have begun to push harder for more independence from their American backers. Most recently, the government ignored U.S. objections to hanging Hussein too hastily. He was executed, amid jeers from Shiite witnesses, four days after an appeals court upheld his death sentence.

Casting a shadow over discussions with Shiites such as Lefta is a despairing sense, inspired by centuries of oppression and suspicion of outsiders, that their community is handcuffed, effectively prevented from shaping its future.

Lefta's friend Wisam al-Taieb, 27, a gaunt Oil Ministry worker with dark, intense eyes, stood next to him at the mosque.

"What future?" Taieb demanded. "Now the Shia are suffering from a campaign of genocide. The Americans are in total control of our security forces. Our elected government does not have the power to move a single military unit. How do you expect me not to be pessimistic?"

Shifting Attitudes

Under Hussein's government, Lefta, a tall man with a soft gaze, was among the millions of Shiites who were marginalized. He studied French in college, hoping to work for the government. But the jobs he sought always went to the Sunni elite, the favored class since the Ottoman Empire colonized Iraq. Today, Lefta doesn't speak a word of French.


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