The following article was written three hours before the assassination of the Iraqi Shiite cleric, Abd Al-Majid Khoei, whose father, the Grand Ayatollah Khoei, was persecuted by Saddam Hussein as the spiritual leader of Iraq’s 12 million Shiites.
Abd Al-Majid returned to Iraq from exile under coalition protection to take up a key role in the future federal government in Baghdad. He died on Thursday, April 10, when a melee that broke out in the Imam Ali Mosque of the holy town of Najaf was exploited by Baath agents in the crowd to commit the murder. A second Shiite cleric died with him.
Chirac Challenges Bush through Iraq’s Shiites
Directly after the assassination, the Shiite community of Iraq was pulled in another unexpected direction – this time the outcome of a challenge France had decided to mount against the United States through a Shiite group.
Thursday night, April 10, a small Paris-based Shiite opposition faction published a call to Iraqi Shiites to rise up against the American occupation of Iraq with all their strength, including force of arms. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Paris sources have found that this group, which is headed by Dr. Abd Rikabi, is sponsored directly by the French intelligence DGSE service. It has a sparse following in most of Iraq’s Shiite centers. This group would never have taken so extreme an initiative without DGSE sanction, which would have required approval from the President, Jacques Chirac. The inference here is that Chirac, using the Shiites as proxies, has embarked on a course of military confrontation against the American presence in Iraq. This course was predicted by the Russian president Vladimir Putin in a warning to President George W. Bush – as revealed on March 14 by DEBKA-Net-Weekly Issue No. 101.
Here Come the Warlords
Reporting on the battle for Basra, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts judge it to have been much more than a fight for control of the southern city. It was all about securing the coalition’s fragile eastern front, where Iran’s influence is prevalent in a predominantly Shiite area likely to be fertile ground for the coming guerrilla war against the Americans in Iraq. Already, Iranian agents are pouring into the Faw Peninsula, Umm Qassar, Basra and al-Amara, bringing in weapons, money and fighters.
Local tribal leaders watched from the sidelines as US armor rumbled towards Baghdad, leaving them free to take the opportunity of setting themselves up as warlords after American military might had gone by. Already, they are staking claims to patches of territory and establishing militias with Iranian largesse and encouragement. Lawlessness reminiscent of the Pakistani-Afghan border is swiftly taking over and could soon threaten Iraq’s southern oil fields.
The old British colonial power that once ruled Iraq is back but failed to take hold of the Faw Peninsula where Iraqi deserters are congregating and rearming for the next round of hostilities.
Neither have the British 7th armored division (Desert Rats) and 16th assault brigade, deployed along a line east of the Shatt al-Arab, been able to prevent Iran from asserting control over the strategic waterway and threatening to turn it into the lawless militias’ main logistical supply and communication channel. Like coalition forces elsewhere in Iraq, the British were only partially successful because they simply did not have enough forces on the ground to do any more.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that, along with the looting, militias are sprouting in all over n Iraq’s main cities. The first turf wars were erupting over control of urban districts.
The militias are set up on religious and tribal lines, a contributing factor to the American nightmare of wholesale slaughter in the cities. Isolated “pockets of resistance” could turn in an instant to a volatile brew of Shiite and Sunni Muslim militias at each other’s throats, a constant thorn in the side of US forces as they battle Saddam’s “jihad” guerrilla bands.
Over the past week, the United States has gone to great lengths to win over the largely secular Shiite population of the big cities. Six out of 10 Iraqis are Shi’ite, according to US estimates. Iran puts the figure at 75 percent of Iraq’s population of 22 million.
The Americans are racing Iran and Saddam for Shiite hearts and minds. The United States made intense efforts this week to persuade Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the top Shi’ite authority in Iraq, to publish a fatwa, or religious edict, calling on Shiite believers to cooperate with coalition forces. US sources insisted that Sistani agreed in a secret meeting in Najaf with Colonel Chris Hughes of the US 101st Airborne Division and Shiite agents of the CIA to call on his people not to resist American troops.
Two days later, Sistani’s office in London disavowed this call.
Adding to US dismay, the next day Iraqi television broadcast what it said was the voice of a senior Shiite clergyman reading a fatwa issued by five religious leaders calling on the Shiites to fight US and British forces to the death.
But the United States has another card up its sleeve – Abd Al-Majid Khoei, its main Shiite ally and leader of some 3,000 Shiite fighters funded by Washington and based in Kuwait. Khoei was in Basra at the beginning of the war some three weeks ago and informed US General Tommy Franks, the supreme coalition commander the city had fallen. That was premature and the Americans hustled him out of Basra. He is now in Najaf where he has been trying unsuccessfully to be received by Sistani or the ayatollah’s associates and request a favorable fatwa.
Undeterred by Sistani’s snub, Khoei made the rounds of Shiite adherents living in Najaf and Karbala, lobbying them for greater cooperation with the US military. He has met with only partial success, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in the area, but in Najaf managed to reopen Shiite shrines shut down by Saddam Hussein, including the Imam Ali central mosque. The Republican Guards had taken possession of the shrine and was preparing to use it as a firing position, when the local populace forced them to drop their plan.
American officers in Najaf and Karbala have found the local populace deeply concerned with the situation of their fellow believers in Baghdad. They offered assurances that the Shiites in the capital should have no fear of being harmed any more than their coreligionists in Najaf and Karbala.
Besides Khoei, the Americans are attempting to influence the population through two other prominent Shiite clerics – Sayyad Bahar el-Olum and Ayatollah Hussein Sadr. They are also courting the Ayatollah Sheikh Mohammed Bshaq Bayat.
A secular Shiite, Ahmed Chalabi, the London-based leader of the opposition Iraqi National Congress, was also asked by Washington to help out. The United States flew him along with some 300 to 400 fighters and 250 people whom he believes will be part of a new Iraqi government from the northern city of Dohuk to Talil, the main US base of air operations in Iraq. From there, he moved to Nasiriyah in the south to spread word of the prominent role the United States is promising the Shiites in post-war central government, if they show their support for the American action in Iraq.
A Destabilizing Wind from Lebanon
The Lebanese Hizballah’s terrorist-ideologue, Sheikh Hassan Fadlallah, member of the Lebanese group’s Politburo and the Ayatollah Sistani’s foremost rival as religious authority in the Shiite world, has already thrown himself into the creation of Saddam’s “jihad” guerrilla underground. Sistani by refraining from throwing his support behind the United States implicitly adds his weight to Saddam’s schemes.
Tehran is continuing to push its candidate, Mohamad Baqr Al Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, for a senior government position in post-war Baghdad against the candidacy of Majid Khoei. The Iranians threaten to stir up Iraqi Shiites against the Americans if they do not get their way. Before launching the war, the Americans welcomed Al Hakim – but have discovered since that his influence in the Shiite community of Iraq is margina, and are brushing off Iran’s threats.