Published on Monday, April 5, 2004 by CommonDreams.org
Taking on the Shi'ites: How America is Creating a Powerful New Enemy
by Lawrence Pintak
The eruption of bloody clashes between Iraqi Shi’ites and Coalition forces, combined with a threat from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to assassinate the head of Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hizbullah movement, raise the frightening prospect that the U.S. could soon face a powerful new enemy, with potentially disastrous consequences in Iraq and beyond.
The Shi’ites, after all, invented both modern Islamist suicide terrorism and the guerrilla tactics being used with such effectiveness against American forces in Iraq. But until now, they have sat out both the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency and the terror war against the U.S., which have been spearheaded by members of the dominant Sunni school of Islam.
With this weekend’s events, all that could change.
The irony is that a confrontation with the Shi’ites might not only make a reality of the Bush administration’s ill-founded claims that the Iraq conflict and terror war are fused, but would, for the first time, expand the forces arrayed against the U.S. elsewhere in the world to include Islam’s second-largest sect, which has defeated both the U.S. and Israel once before.
The other irony, of course, is that what the Shi’ites in Iraq, which make up more than 60 percent of the population, demand of the U.S. is the very thing the U.S. demands of other Arab governments: Free and fair elections and an end to foreign interference. Not incidentally, Iraqi Shi’ites last year welcomed the arrival of U.S. forces, after decades of brutal suppression under Saddam Hussein.
The ongoing violence, which began at the weekend, has left dozens of Shi’ites dead, scores more wounded, and claimed the lives of at least eight U.S. soldiers. Even before the latest carnage, the State Department’s counterterrorism chief, J. Cofer Black, told a Congressional committee that the battle in Iraq "may transition from defeating a group to fighting a movement." The latest bloodshed raises the real prospect that the latter may happen at an unprecedented new level, even as the U.S. faces an escalating and unwinnable insurgency in Iraq.
The violence primarily involves followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a firebrand cleric demanding a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The White House has sought to portray the crisis as a confrontation with “one individual who is seeking to derail democracy and freedom for the Iraqi people.” But the fact that al-Sadr does not – for the moment – represent the majority of Shi’ites may well be immaterial.
The last time the U.S. went to war against the Shi’ites, two decades ago in Lebanon, the initial clashes were also provoked by anti-American extremists who had an interest in turning the majority of Lebanon’s Shi’ites against the U.S. The Reagan administration took the bait and, as in the weekend’s violence, scores of Shi’ites died in the ensuing clashes. The U.S. was thus launched down what one official then called “the slippery slope to disaster.” By the time it was all over, suicide bombings claimed the lives of hundreds of American servicemen and diplomats, and a superpower had been brought to its knees.
The group responsible then was known as Hizbullah. Today, it is one of Lebanon’s most important political parties. It has not been directly involved in an anti-American terrorist act in almost 20 years. But many in the White House and Pentagon – including then-Middle East envoy Donald Rumsfeld – still hold a very large grudge. So, too, does Ariel Sharon, who led the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which provoked Hizbullah’s brutal 18-year insurgency that ultimately forced Israel to withdraw, licking its wounds. He also blames Hizbullah for suicide attacks in Israel, though the evidence is thin.
In the months after 9/11, President Bush promised Sharon that Hizbullah would be targeted in “phase two” of the terror war. Which is why Sharon’s comments in interviews with Israeli media over the weekend that Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah, along with Yasser Arafat, is a possible assassination target, are so worrying.
"Whoever aims to kill Jews, whoever sends murderers to kill Jews, is marked for death," he told Israeli Army Radio.
Some Israeli newspapers have suggested that Sharon may be trying to distract attention from his legal troubles, but that does not make the threat any less serious, particularly given the recent assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, an act even the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz labelled “insanity” and Yediot Aharonot called “madness.” Sharon, who Arabs know as “the Butcher of Beirut” for his role in the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians and Shi’ites, has never shrunk from using violence to achieve his goals. The current Intifada, which he cynically provoked by visiting the hallowed ground of Al-Aqsa mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites, is witness to that. The predictable result was a convulsion of violence that crippled the peace process and facilitated Sharon’s election as Prime Minister.
An attack on Hizbullah at a time when the U.S. is on the razor’s edge in Iraq would prove disastrous for the United States, which Arabs hold responsible for Israeli actions – a notion underlined by the White House endorsement of the Yassin assassination.
Ties between Lebanese Shi’ites, Iraqi Shi’ites and Iranian Shi’ites run deep. Clerics from all three countries spend much of their lives studying at the Shi’ite holy cities of Qom in Iran and Karbala and Najaf in Iraq. They marry each other’s sisters and daughters. They closely follow each other’s religious edicts.
Policymakers who doubt the potential for disaster need know only one set of facts: Ayatollah Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah, widely considered the spiritual father of Hizbullah, was born in Najaf, Iraq. His mentor was Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, a revered cleric assassinated by Saddam Hussein. Baqir’s nephew, Muqtada al-Sadr, is the Iraqi cleric who leads those involved in this weekend’s clashes.
Briefing reporters aboard Air Force One Monday, White House spokesman Scott McCellan attempted to dismiss the significance of al-Sadr: "This is an individual, I would remind you, that has pledged solidarity with terrorist organizations, Hamas and Hezbollah."
Lost in the rhetoric was the fact that this is precisely what makes this such a dangerous strategic moment – one in which America’s fate lies, in part, in the hands of Ariel Sharon.
If the White House does not finally recognize that the interests of the United States and Sharon’s personal political interests are not the same, and if the U.S. doesn’t find a way to grant Iraqi Shi’ites the political voice their numbers deem that they deserve, we could well end up not only “with the worst of all worlds,” as Sen. Richard Lugar warned over the weekend, but with a world that is far worse.
Lawrence Pintak, the Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism at the University of Michigan, has covered political Islam in the Middle East and Southeast Asia for more than 20 years. He is author of 'Seeds of Hate: How America's Flawed Middle East Policy Ignited the Jihad'. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.