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Who the Shiites are and what they believe

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's Shiites make up nearly 60 percent of the country's predominantly Muslim population, but until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, were among the most repressed. They number 16 million, are overwhelmingly Arab and live mostly in southern and central Iraq

While Shiites make up a majority of the population in Iraq, they belong to a minority sect of Islam, encompassing roughly 15 percent of Muslims worldwide and often discriminated against by the dominant Sunni sect.

The branches disagree about who succeeded Islam's prophet Muhammad after his death in 632. Shiites believe religious authority should have gone to Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, and 11 of his descendents.

The slaughter of some of these Shiite successors or "imams" by the ruling caliphs 13 centuries ago led the sect to idealize suffering and martyrdom more than its Sunni counterpart. Caliphs were the religious and political leaders for Sunnis, although unlike Shiite imams, they were not considered infallible.

Shiite theology subsequently evolved under the auspices of the sect's spiritual leaders, or marja'iya. They interpret Islamic law and dogma for most of the world's Shiites and issue commandments known as "fatwas" that adherents are expected to obey.

The friction today between Shiites and Sunnis is especially palpable in Iraq, where elements of the minority Sunni population are waging an insurgency against the U.S.-led coalition and Shiites, whom they don't want to take power. Under Saddam, Sunnis were the rulers and administrators. Shiites, on the other hand, were sent to the front to fight fellow Shiites in neighboring Iran during the two countries' 1980-88 war.

Subsequent Shiite uprisings against Saddam were brutally suppressed. His forces executed thousands of Shiites and buried them in mass graves.

The Shiite faith's roots are in Iraq, where its four most sacred shrine cities are. The 12 Shiite imams spent at least part of their lives in Iraq.

The most important of the cities is Najaf, the seat of Iraqi Shiites' most influential marja'iya, who probably will wield behind-the-scenes influence over the new Iraqi government. Key among those is Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, who has tacitly endorsed the Shiite slate projected to win Sunday's parliamentary elections.

Iraqi Shiites are closely aligned with Iran, with which they share religious, cultural and social ties. Each country's Shiite clerics spend time in Najaf and in Qom, the holiest city in Iran. Both cities are the key centers of Shiite learning.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.