The startling explosion of Shiite passion in Iraq is forcing US officials to contemplate the possibility that by toppling Saddam Hussein they have made the region safe for theocracy rather than democracy.
There are many reasons to believe that Iraq will not end up as a mullah-controlled state - the next Iran. Shiites, while a majority in Iraq, must still strike some governing arrangement with sizable Sunni Muslim and Kurdish minorities. Iraqi Shiites are themselves split over how much religion should be intertwined with civil affairs.
But at the least the end of Mr. Hussein's police state has opened a land bridge between Iran's ruling clerics and Hizbullah and other Shiite-dominated terror groups to the west. The new boldness of Iraq's religious leaders could inspire long-oppressed Shiite populations from Syria to Saudi Arabia.
"Suddenly the Shia are feeling their time in history has arrived," says Akbar Ahmed, a professor of Islamic studies at American University in Washington.
On Wednesday Shiites celebrated the final day of their pilgrimage to a holy shrine in the central Iraqi city of Karbala. The pilgrimage was long banned by Saddam Hussein, who also murdered many leading Shiite clerics and brutally suppressed an uprising in the Shiite-dominated south of the country following the end of the Gulf War of 1991.
The pilgrimage has been marked by an eruption of piety among the faithful, and by chants of anti-Hussein, anti-American, and anti-Israeli slogans.
Asked about the demonstrations, retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, civil head of Iraq until a new government is established, said Wednesday that they were evidence of the new freedom that Iraqis have to dissent. He also said a number of them were staged - presumably by Iranian agents said to have infiltrated Iraq in the wake of US forces."A majority of the people realize we're only going to stay here long enough to start a democratic government for them," General Garner said.
Shiites are a minority in Islam as a whole, making up some 10 to 20 percent of all Muslims. They believe that Islam's leader should be a descendant of the prophet Mohammed, while the majority Sunni branch of Islam has held that the religion's leader should be chosen by consensus.
In Iraq, Shiites are a majority of around 60 percent. Yet Sunnis have dominated the country from its founding in the wake of World War I through Hussein's tyranny.
Prior to the invasion of Iraq US officials seemed most worried that it was the Kurds, in the north, who would be the country's most independence-minded population. CIA and Special Forces officials did try to make contact with Shiite leaders, but had only moderate success.
One Shiite cleric who was working with the US, Abdul Majid Khoei, was murdered in Najaf earlier this month after returning to the country from exile in London. In retrospect this seems a sign of the turmoil to come.
Kept down by history and Saddam, the Shiites were bound to erupt, says Akbar Ahmed of American University. "The centrifugal forces have been released," he says. "If there is a democracy in Iraq ... the president will be Shia."
Furthermore, if Shiites do dominate the government, they might propose some sort of federation with Iran, Mr. Ahmed says. The result would be twin pillars of Shiite Islam - a nightmare for Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and other Sunni-dominated states.
Iraq's neighbors are indeed watching the rise of the Shiites with trepidation, say sources in the region. Many worry that if the US is not careful, religious extremism could spread from the Israeli-occupied territories through Lebanon and the Gulf states, and into Syria and Jordan.
"The worry is there. We would be as displeased as the Americans," says a Jordanian government official.
But there are many reasons to believe that the current demonstrations do not reflect the full will of Iraq's Shiites, say experts.
Many Shiites in the country are followers of clerics who call for separation of "church and state" - though many others are indeed influenced by the Tehran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an exile group that has resisted US entreaties.
Furthermore, Iraqi Shiites are largely Arabs, while Iranians are Persians. And many are nationalistic enough to have fought without rebelling in Hussein's brutal war with Iran.
"Some Shiite leaders question whether Western democratic values are right for Iraq," says a Western diplomat in Jordan. "But the Shiites are not a unified group, and others have expressed openness to democracy."
FOR the short run, the US will probably try ensure that Iraq's government is a tripartite Shiite-Sunni-Kurd arrangement that allows all a measure of freedom, as in a federation. For the long run, the US is counting on the experience of sharing power, and the power of education, to accustom Iraqis to democracy instead of theocracy.
But if such civic life is seen by others in the region as being imposed on Iraq, the consequences could be very negative. The result could be further radicalization of Islamist groups, as is happening to some extent in Pakistan in response to the US expulsion of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"The clock is ticking, and the Americans have to quickly transfer power to the Iraqi people," said Jordan's King Abdullah in a broadcast interview on Tuesday. "The US has only once chance to get it right and win the peace."
• Danna Harman in Amman, Jordan, and Jane Lampman in Boston contributed to this report.