Among Iraqi exiles, frustration with a tight-lipped US

In an interview, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, voices fears about US aims for a postwar government.

An exiled leader of Iraq's majority Shiite community, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, is frustrated that US officials are not sharing their vision for Iraq after the fall of President Saddam Hussein.

"The problem is that they do not mention their intentions and they do not declare what they will do in the future as far as the Iraq issue is concerned. This is not only our problem; it's the problem of all the Iraqi opposition [and] the neighboring countries," asserts Mr. Hakim, who heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

Hakim, who wears the beard, turban, and robes of the Shiite clergy, has a kind face and an occasionally mischievous smile. But he could not have driven his point home more thoroughly.

During an hour-long interview with three American reporters at his Tehran headquarters yesterday, he said no less than 10 times that he and his colleagues are clueless about US plans in the aftermath of a war against Iraq.

As other members of Iraq's fractious exiled opposition made clear during a mid-December meeting in London, which Hakim's brother Abdel Aziz also attended, the Shiites seem to fear an American occupation of their country nearly as much as they do Mr. Hussein's regime.

"We do not know what the Americans will do in the future. If they themselves control the Iraqi government, there will be many problems and dangers," he warned.

The US has long been wary of Iraq's Shiites, in part because they receive strong support from Iran. This country is run by Shiite clerics who overthrew a US-backed dictator in 1979, and US officials do not want to see to see a similar theocracy emerge in Iraq.

But Iranian analysts and Hakim himself say the Iraqi Shiites would not seek to replicate an Iranian-style regime in Iraq. "Iran is ruled by a [cleric who serves as supreme leader], and he is on the top of the power and administration," says Hakim. "But in Iraq, there should be a kind of government that represents all the Iraqi nationals and political directions."

While Iraq's Shiites may share a religious tradition with their Iranian neighbors, says Davoud Hermidas Bavand, an international law professor in Tehran, the Iraqis have other loyalties as well.

"Their devotion to Arabism is much stronger than their devotion to Shiism," he says, noting that the vast majority of Iraqi Shiites stayed loyal to Iraq during their country's eight-year war with Iran.

Even though states friendly with the US nearly surround Iran -Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia are three examples - the US does not want to see a post-Hussein Iraq come under the sway of Iran.

Both Iran and the US seem devoted to to the art of the mixed message in their dealings with each other. Although the US sought and received Iranian assistance during the US war in Afghanistan, President Bush later labeled Iran part of the "axis of evil."

And although Iranian officials - according to a report in The Washington Post this weekend - met last month with US diplomats for discussions on Iraq, senior Iranian leaders have attacked the US in speeches in the past few days.

SCIRI and other Shiite groups will have to be part of a post-Hussein political equation. For one thing, SCIRI maintains a militia that, alongside Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, may prove militarily useful to the US. Its officials have said the force includes 10,000 fighters, although Hakim refused to specify a number yesterday.

More broadly, Shiites constitute an estimated 60 percent of Iraq's population, and they may feel as if their time has come. The country's Sunni Muslim minority has brutally repressed any Shiite political activity aimed at promoting an Islamic state.

Hakim's carpeted receiving room displays framed black-and-white portraits of six brothers who were killed by the regime and another who is in an Iraqi prison.

The Iraqi Shiites themselves are wary of the US, and not only because they feel that the US is keeping them out of the loop regarding their country's destiny. Their experience with the US in the first Gulf war has left a sense of bitter mistrust.

Heeding the encouragement of President George H. W. Bush, Shiites in southern Iraq rose up in rebellion against Hussein's regime following his eviction from Kuwait in 1991. The Shiites say they were betrayed when American forces declined to help stop Hussein's forces from crushing their uprising.

Europeans have criticized the Bush administration for stating early on that "regime change" was its goal, rather than emphasizing the disarmament of Hussein's regime; but Hakim now worries that the Americans are too focused on Iraq's weapons. In particular, he observed that Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his presentation to the UN Security Council on Feb. 5, did not address the "tragedies of the Iraqi people and what they were suffering from."

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