Just outside the sacred tomb of Imam Ali (the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law) in this dusty Shiite holy city, the Iraqi government has erected a mural extending the length of half a city block. It is the Iraqi equivalent of a recruitment poster for the Gulf war. The mural emphasizes centuries-old ethnic tensions and Iraqi Arabs' fears of the often-stronger Iranian Persians. It is a theme President Saddam Hussein has used effectively in preventing his secular nation from being ripped apart from within by dedicated Shiite followers of Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
One end of the mural depicts the modern Iraqi Army in action against Iran's forces at the war front. The other end shows Arabs on horseback repelling invading Persian warriors, presumably in the ancient battle of Qadisiyah.
To Iraqis, including Iraqi Shiites, the mural is a reminder that their forefathers suffered repeatedly under invading foreign armies - particularly Persian armies.
That the work of art should be placed in the Shiite center of Najaf, where Ayatollah Khomeini himself lived and taught in exile for 15 years until the 1970s, is particularly telling. The mural is a vivid example of how President Hussein has managed to undercut Khomeini's efforts to incite Shiite Arabs into mass religious-oriented uprisings. In the process, Hussein has helped build a stronger sense of nationalism and pride among Iraqi Arabs of various religious backgrounds.
``There is no Shia loyalty [to Khomeini] in Iraq,'' says a diplomat flatly. ``They don't like Khomeini.'' Another experienced diplomat adds, ``I don't rate tremendously high a Shia threat.''
``He is a dictator,'' says a young, educated Shiite woman referring to Khomeini. She acknowledges that violent underground Shiite groups such as ``Islamic Call'' exist in Iraq and that Shiites have historically been disadvantaged. But, she adds, most Iraqi Shiites would rather not fall under Tehran's conservative mullahs.
Such attitudes are critical for the support of the Sunni regime that rules Iraq, a country where 55 to 60 percent of the people belong to the same Shiite sect of Islam as Khomeini. In addition, an estimated 70 percent of Iraq's Army is comprised of Shiite Muslims.
There is no reliable information on how much support Khomeini has among Iraqi Shiites, but Shiite and other sources say there are pockets of support. Nonetheless, if the government's anti-Persian campaign succeeds, the threat of Shiite activism will be significantly diminished.
On a recent trip to Najaf and Karbala, it was impossible to independently assess the Shiite community's mood. Though the government gave permission to visit the holy cities, journalists were not permitted to meet with local leaders, and all interviews with residents were conducted in the presence of a government official.
It is also difficult to determine whether several Iraqi Shiites, who this reporter managed to interview in private, felt comfortable and trusting enough to talk freely about their feelings toward Khomeini.
According to diplomatic and other sources, a simple profession of loyalty to Khomeini would be considered by Iraq's enthusiastic and often ruthless security force to be a declaration of treason.
``Repression is an integral part of the way [Iraq] is governed,'' a Western diplomat says. Another diplomat adds, ``If they really want to follow Khomeini they have to be willing to risk their own lives.''
Tens of thousands of Shiites of Iranian origin were deported from Iraq immediately after the 1979 Iranian revolution. There have also been reports of widespread detentions of suspected political foes and forced relocations of Shiites within Iraq. By one count, 178 Shiite leaders, scholars, and religious officials have been executed in the past seven years.
There appears to be no single answer to the question of why the Shiites have remained quiet despite repeated Iranian calls for revolt. Analysts say that while strict security measures have played a role, other factors are also important.
``It is the old front line between the Persians and the Arabs,'' a diplomat says. ``The people in [heavily Shiite] southern Iraq are Arabs and have been living there for centuries. That makes the difference.''
Hussein's ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party has helped raise the standard of living for Shiite Arabs through new job opportunities. Baghdad has also helped finance renovation of Shiite holy sites.
``If Iraq had not been successful in improving the social situation of the Shia, Khomeini would have been able to say `Look at the Sunni regime, how they are subjugating the Shia,''' says a long-time diplomatic analyst here.
Another factor has been that, with 70 percent of the Iraqi Army being Shiite, a high proportion of men killed by Iranians - and their grieving relatives - are Shiites. Ironically, they are the same people Khomeini says he wants to liberate.
In the logic of an Iraqi soldier, if Khomeini were a friend of Iraqi Shiites, he wouldn't send his Army to kill them. ``When I go to fight against an Iranian ... I know only that he wants to kill me,'' says an Iraqi Shiite soldier. ``I don't have time to ask him who he is or what he thinks. I must kill him before he kills me.''