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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Iraq Goes Shiite

The Bush team's vision for a postwar Iraq was founded on the dreams of exiles and defectors who promised that Iraqis would shower U.S. troops with flowers. Now, with the crowds shouting, "No to America; no to Saddam," and most Iraqis already referring to the U.S. "occupation," the U.S. administration seems puzzled.

The truth is that the exiles had been in the West so long that they knew little of the reality inside Iraq; the defectors, in search of a haven from the cruel regime, told the eager Americans anything they wanted to hear. Now that these illusions have been shattered, U.S. policymakers might do better to consider the history of the region. In particular, the dogged nationalism of the Iraqis that forced imperial Britain's departure in 1932; and, more recently, the events in 1979 after the downfall of the secular regime of the shah of Iran.

A big argument among U.S. officials had been over the future of the secular Baath Party, with the pragmatists advocating a mere "head transplant" of the top leadership while keeping the body intact, and the ideologues proposing outright destruction. Events, however, ignored the debate in Washington, and the Baath disappeared altogether, as did the military and most of the police.

This vacuum is reminiscent of what happened in Iran in February 1979. The 440,000-strong military of the pro-U.S. shah disintegrated quickly, as did the police force and the Savak, the notorious secret police. Into that vacuum stepped the Islamic Revolutionary Komitehs, run by Shiite clerics operating from the local mosques. The Komitehs took over not only law enforcement but also such essential chores as distributing heating oil to households in wintry Tehran.

A similar pattern has emerged in Iraq, particularly in the Shiite-majority south and the Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad. Over the centuries, as members of a community that was discriminated against and repressed, the Shiites learned to find comfort in religion and piety to a much greater extent than the ruling Sunnis. In recent decades, Shiite clerics devised clandestine networks of communication that even Saddam Hussein's spies failed to infiltrate. Eschewing written messages or telephones, they used personal envoys who spoke in code. In the wake of Iraq's collapse, this messenger system has proved remarkably efficient.

It didn't take long for Najaf, the holiest place of Shiite Iraq, to become the nerve center. Shiite mullahs around the country were told to set up local committees to organize the affairs of their neighborhoods. This included collecting looted property and returning it to the owners; securing water plants, electricity substations and hospitals; and establishing defense committees with uniformed personnel, bearing Kalashnikovs, at checkpoints.

The Shiites, however, are not uniform in their outlook. Yet they are united in their demand, endorsed by predominantly Shiite Iran, that the Americans leave soon. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq has a 10,000-man army, armed by Iran, and controls many Iraqi towns near the Iranian border. By contrast, the Free Iraqi Forces loyal to Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the U.S.-sponsored Iraqi National Congress, have only about 600 men under arms.

Contrary to his Pentagon backers, the CIA's longtime assessment of him remains solid: Although he is a Shiite, he lacks any constituency inside Iraq. Nor is he likely to inspire new followers.

Compare this luxury-loving, highly Westernized banker (who was convicted by Jordan in absentia of embezzlement and fraud) with Ayatollah Khomeini, the ascetic Iranian Shiite cleric who shunned worldly goods and led a popular revolution that overthrew what was the most powerful regime in the Middle East. It is an illustration of the difference between a regime change achieved by the people and one imposed by a foreign military power.

So might another Khomeini rise from the ashes? Given the complex ethnic and sectarian mix of Iraqi society, it is unrealistic to expect that any single Iraqi leader would be acceptable to the population at large, even temporarily. The antipathy between Shiites and Sunnis, now quiescent in the face of a common occupying power, existed even before 1638, when the Sunni Ottoman Turks took control of Mesopotamia and made the Sunnis a ruling minority.

Then there are the Kurds. They were introduced into the Iraqi equation by the British, who, seeking oil, in 1920 snatched the Kurdish-majority province of Mosul from Turkey and attached it to Mesopotamia, calling the new entity Iraq.

Still, it is not hopeless to imagine the three factions being bound by nationalism. In 1920, Iraqis of all political hues and ethnic backgrounds rose up against the British; the colonial government had to call in troops from the Indian army to quell it. By the time they restored order, 6,500 people were dead, all but 500 Iraqi civilians. The 1920 revolt is the crucible in which Iraqi nationalism was formed. That unity showed its durability during Iraq's armed conflict with the predominantly Shiite Iran in the 1980s. To the complete surprise of the Iranians, Hussein managed to retain the loyalty of the Iraqi army, where Shiite conscripts formed a majority.

Thus the only viable solution for the transient Iraqi authority is likely to be a collective of three leaders -- one Sunni, one Shiite and one Kurd. But Washington would be ill advised to establish that tripartite government. Iraqis would more readily agree to outside interference only of other Muslim states, either through the Arab League or the UN.

It would be paradoxical, if not downright insulting, to see officials from Arab League countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia helping Iraqis on to a democratic path. So the UN, with strong representation from such secular democratic Muslim countries as Turkey, Malaysia and Bangladesh, would seem to have the best chance of success. This, of course, is the last thing the U.S. administration wants. But if it truly hopes to see a liberated Iraq, stepping down as power broker might be the only option.

Dilip Hiro, author of "Iran Under the Ayatollahs" and "Iraq: In the Eye of the Storm," contributed this comment to The New York Times.