U.S. Wary as Iraqi Shiites Gain Political Strength

WASHINGTON -- As Iraqi Shiite demands for a dominant role in Iraq's future mount, U.S. officials say they underestimated the Shiites' organizational strength and are unprepared to prevent the rise of an anti-American, Islamic fundamentalist government in the country.

The burst of Shiite power -- as demonstrated by the hundreds of thousands who made a long-banned pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala on Tuesday -- has U.S. officials looking for allies in the struggle to fill the power vacuum left by the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

As the administration plotted to overthrow Hussein's government, U.S. officials said this week, it failed to fully appreciate the force of Shiite aspirations and is now concerned that those sentiments could coalesce into a fundamentalist government.

Some administration officials were dazzled by Ahmed Chalabi, the prominent Iraqi exile who is a Shiite and an advocate of a secular democracy. Others were more focused on the overriding goal of defeating Hussein and paid little attention to the dynamics of religion and politics in the region.

"It is a complex equation, and the U.S. government is ill-equipped to figure out how this is going to shake out," a State Department official said. "I don't think anyone took a step backward and asked, 'What are we looking for?' The focus was on the overthrow of Saddam Hussein."

U.S. intelligence reports reaching top officials throughout the government this week said the Shiites appear to be much more organized than was thought. On Monday, one meeting of generals and admirals at the Pentagon evolved into a spontaneous teach-in on Iraq's Shiites and the U.S. strategy for containing Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq.

The administration hopes the U.S.-led war in Iraq will lead to a crescent of democracies in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, the Israeli-occupied territories and Saudi Arabia. But it could just as easily spark a renewed fervor for Islamic rule in the crescent, officials said.

"This is a 25-year project," one three-star general officer said. "Everyone agreed it was a huge risk, and the outcome was not at all clear."

The CIA has cultivated some Shiite clerics, but not many, and not for very long. The CIA is helping to move clerics safely into towns where they can build a political base.

"We don't want to allow Persian fundamentalism to gain any foothold," a senior administration official said. "We want to find more moderate clerics and move them into positions of influence."

One major problem is that Hussein executed hundreds of Shiite clerics and exiled thousands more, leaving behind few Shiite civic or religious leaders of national standing.

U.S. officials are hoping to combat fundamentalism by helping the Iraqis build a secular education system. Before 1991, Iraq had what was regarded as one of the finest education systems in the region, but years of economic sanctions have devastated it.

"The most radical aspects of Islam are in places with no education at all but the Koran," an official said. "There is no math, no culture. You counter that [fundamentalism] by doing something with the education system."

The Shiites of Iraq make up about 60 percent of the population, compared with less than 20 percent for the Sunnis, who have long dominated Iraqi political life.

Some experts believe ending the suppression of Iraqi Shiites will begin to turn the center of the religion away from Iran. The shrines of two of its most revered imams -- the Shiite successors to Mohammed -- are in the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Chalabi's influence, particularly with senior policymakers at the Pentagon, helped play down the prospects for trouble, some officials said. "They really did believe he is a Shiite leader," although he had been out of the country for 45 years, a U.S. official said. "They thought, 'We're set, we've got a Shiite -- check the box here.'"

U.S. officials have tried to make inroads with Iraq's most important Shiite group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, starting with contacts in Kuwait about five years ago.

But SCIRI, which is based in Tehran and is closely linked with the Iranian government, boycotted the first U.S.-sponsored meeting of Iraqi political and religious leaders in the town of Ur to discuss the country's political future. Over the years, "there was not as much contact as there should have been," the State Department official said.

"They expected a much warmer reception, and as a result it would be unnecessary for them to deal with some of these issues," said Kenneth Pollack, a Brookings Institution scholar who was one of former U.S. President Bill Clinton's top Iraq specialists. "That flawed assumption is at the heart of some of the reasons they are scrambling now."