QOM, Iran—The fall of Saddam Hussein could trigger a religious upheaval as well as a political one.
For a quarter of a century, Iran and its top religious leader, the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, have defined Shiite Islam for its 120 million followers and for the world. But the liberation of Najaf—Shiite Islam's holiest city—by U.S. forces now threatens to weaken Iran's influence.
Theologians and analysts say a new, Arab Shiite face could emerge, one represented by spiritual leaders who are prepared to be friendly to the United States so long as President Bush leaves Iraq to the Iraqi people.
Since Iran's Islamic revolution brought Khomeini to power in 1979, this minority Muslim sect has been harsh and anti-Western, advocating the destruction of Israel, seeking to export the revolution to Lebanon and elsewhere, sponsoring terrorism and assassinations and pledging allegiance to a single, supreme leader.
A shift is already palpable in Iran's holy city of Qom, where clerics feel the pull of a Najaf that's no longer under the thumb of a tyrant in Baghdad. Thousands of religious teachers and students, as well as several important ayatollahs, are talking about relocating to the central Iraqi city.
Exiled Iraqi religious leaders who fled to Qom over the past three decades to escape the tyranny of Saddam Hussein are abuzz with the comings and goings of the revered Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who Saddam kept under house arrest for 15 years.
"Shiites worldwide are going to shift their view to Najaf," said the moderate Iraqi Shiite leader Abdel Majid al Khoei, in an interview by satellite phone from Najaf two days before he was slain on Thursday in a melee at Shiite Islam's holiest shrine. "The holy city will be as prominent as it was before" Hussein's reign, the pro-Western cleric predicted.
Iran, however, isn't likely to step aside. During Friday prayers in Tehran, the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned Shiite Muslims in Persian and Arabic of U.S.-led "aggression against Islam." He urged Iraqis to resist U.S. and British ambitions.
Khamenei's speech reflected how the traditional rift between Arabs and Iranians can become blurred in the Shiite communities of Iran and the Arab world.
A minority shunned by the Muslim world's Sunni majority, Shiites are bound more by faith than by ethnicity.
Although many Iraqi Shiites fought against Iran during their eight-year war in the 1980s, many prominent Iraqi ayatollahs such as Sistani are of Iranian descent. For more than a century, Iranians and Iraqis have studied in one another's holy cities, and many Shiite clerics are fluent in both Arabic and Persian.
But when Saddam's mostly Sunni but secular Baath Party took power Iraq in 1968, the Shiite center of power shifted to Iran. Prominent Iraqi Shiite clerics were murdered or forced to flee to Iran. Iran's Islamic revolution strengthened its grip on the sect, and Qom became a pulpit for Iran's leaders to guide all the Shiite faithful.
Iraq, however, remains Shiite Islam's birthplace and center of gravity. The shrines of its two most revered imams—the Shiite successors to the Prophet Mohammed—are in Najaf and neighboring Karbala. Shiite Islam's oldest "Hoezeh," or seminary, was established in Najaf more than 1,300 years ago. Qom in Iran is a relative latecomer, founded in the 9th century with Fatima, the sister of an imam, enshrined there.
Najaf's reemergence could offer a freer voice to Shiite theologians, especially those who don't accept Khomeini's concept of a single supreme Shiite ruler.
"It's only natural when there is freedom that it's much easier to express yourself in a much louder voice," said Lebanon's Grand Ayatollah Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah, one of the sect's senior religious authorities and the onetime spiritual leader of the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah. "But the question is can we be sure that there will be freedom in Iraq following the fall of Saddam?"
Other Shiite leaders share Fadlallah's fears about American interference.
Iranian cleric Mohsen Kadivar said that if the Americans fail to leave Iraq quickly, Najaf could become the center of a new Iraqi struggle against the United States. Iraqi spiritual leaders would call for a holy war, or jihad, said Kadivar, a high-profile dissident who's critical of the autocratic Shiite rule established under Khomeini.
"Iraqis will begin to challenge an American regime in Iraq," said Kadivar. "Jihad will come. It's obvious."
Some exiled Iraqi clerics disagree. "America is a new experience for us," said Jawad al Khoei, a cleric who fled Iraq for Qom eight years ago. "No one else helped us. We couldn't have pushed Saddam aside by ourselves."
"We don't accept Iranians as the only spokesman for Shiism," he added. "The rights of all Shiites must be preserved."
Thursday's brutal slaying of Khoei's uncle by followers of a rival Shiite spiritual leader, however, may be a preview of the instability that could preoccupy Iraq's religious authorities for the foreseeable future.
And chaos in Iraq would only help Khamenei preserve his domination of the Shiite world, theologians and scholars say.
Nizar Hamzeh, an expert in Shiite politics at the American University of Beirut, predicts that the Iranian leader will try to maintain Iran's central role. Khamenei lacks the religious credentials of Fadlallah and Sistani, but he has all other Shiite leaders beat when it comes to political and military might.
Khamenei's strongest allies in Iraq are the exiled Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al Hakim and his 10,000-strong Badr Brigade, trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, who will try to exert control over Najaf, Hamzeh added.
Many Iranian dissidents and Iraqi exiles believe Khamenei will fail, however.
"Even now, Ayatollah Khamenei does not have enough power," said Ahmad Montazeri, a cleric and son of Iran's leading religious dissident, Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, who has challenged Khamenei.
"He's not an important enough Marja (religious authority)," said the younger Montazeri. "It's a question of belief, and you cannot force people to follow."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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