Iraq polls Shia emancipation nears

David Hirst:

For the first time in centuries, Shias are about to come into their own as the rulers in a key Arab country. In principle, the Iraqi elections will ratify, and lend constitutional legitimacy to, a transformation inexorably under way since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

In the Arab world, except for Lebanon with its largely Christian population, the rulers of all 22 states have traditionally hailed from the orthodox Sunni majority. But until now that has included two countries, Iraq and Bahrain, where Shias compose the majority. The correction of this anomaly will be momentous, given Iraq’s history and geopolitical weight, and the tumultuous conditions in which it is taking place.

Iraq, after all, is where, in the bloody struggle over the prophet’s succession, Islam’s great schism first took root; where, for centuries, Shias under Sunni Ottoman rule bore the brunt of its conflicts with Shia Persian empires; where, in the 1920s, Shias led the rebellion against British mandatory rule, but ended up grossly under-represented in the modern Iraqi state; where, under Ba’athism, Sunnis turned minority rule into despotism of the most chauvinistic and brutal kind at their expense.

The idea of electorally established Shia dominance of Iraq deeply troubles Arab regimes, with or without Shias of their own. Jordan’s King Abdullah has most publicly declared that Iran’s “vested interest is to have an Islamic republic of Iraq; if that happened, we’ve opened ourselves to a whole set of new problems that won’t be limited to the borders of Iraq’’. He warned of a Shia “crescent’’ stretching from Iran into Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and destabilising Gulf countries and posing a challenge to the US.

“This is the first time,’’ said Lebanese commentator Joseph Samaha, “an Arab official has used such direct and dangerous language to incite against a particular confession and warn that it may turn into a fifth column to be used against the majority.’’ For other Arab commentators, what such remarks indicate, at bottom, is fear of democracy, and the prospect that Iraq will now demonstrate what Palestine already has — that in the Arab world people have more electoral choice if they are occupied rather than sovereign. Any Iraqi democracy is bound, at first, to assume the “sectarian’’ character King Abdullah deplores. The ruthless, discriminatory exploitation of sectarianism that was the foundation of Saddam’s rule has to give way to a system whose primary building block is the fair and representative stake which the country’s various communities acquire in it, the Shias acquiring the largest. Inevitably, too, Iran, for which the emancipation of its Iraqi co-religionists is a great potential enhancement of its own regional influence, is Iraq’s only neighbour to be happy about that. Ironically, it was much quicker than Arab friends of America to “recognise’’ the new American-installed Iraqi order and is the most ardent supporter of American-sponsored elections.

Arab regimes with Shia citizens perhaps have most grounds for alarm because, like Saddam, they have in varying degrees discriminated against them. The quest for equal rights has been common to Shias in every modern Arab state. The only one in which they have basically achieved them, through civil war as well as that country’s unique, confessionally organised political system, is Lebanon.

Though Shias constitute 60 per cent of Bahrain’s population, they do not apparently aim for an Iraq-style change of regime, only for greater representation than they have achieved so far. But Iraqi Shia emancipation is also disturbing to a non-Shia country like Jordan, because, small and fragile, it is deeply affected by any political upheavals in neighbours more powerful than itself, and its relatively benign autocracy does depend on discrimination of a kind, favouring Transjordanians over Palestinians. In multi-confessional Syria, minority Alawites dominate the regime; Shia triumph in Iraq might encourage the majority Sunnis to regain the ascendancy which they lost with the rise of Ba’athism. It is obvious that all these regimes, like the Iraqi insurgents, hanker after a restoration of the old Sunni or, at least, as King Abdullah once put it, “somebody with a military background who has experience of being a tough guy.’’

Equally obviously, however, the Shias, recalling what happened in the 20s, will not have it. So, like the Americans, the regimes have now calculated that, while holding elections, which a large part of the Sunnis might boycott, is a grave risk, not holding them would be a graver one. They are all urging the Sunnis to support popular consultation they would never permit in their own countries.

For what makes Arab regimes fear an Iraqi democracy makes them fear civil war more; and while quite possible with elections, that would be even more so without them. The Shias have so far been remarkably restrained in their response to the anti-Shia terror that seems to be a secondary part of the Sunni resistance to American occupation; their mainstream religious leaders clearly want to keep their distance from Iran, and, according to a recent opinion poll, Sunnis are twice as much in favour of a fully fledged “Islamic government’’ of some kind as they are. But, if they cannot come into their inheritance by constitutional means, they will be all too likely drawn into unconstitutional, violent means instead. And Iran would get deeply involved in that. — The Guardian