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Shiite victory threatens to fracture the Arab Middle East

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's January 30 elections are almost certain to bring Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority to power after decades of brutal repression.

That prospect has fueled fear and uncertainty inside the country; unsettled Iraq's Sunni Muslim neighbors; and created new uncertainties about what kind of Iraq will replace Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, and even about whether Iraq will remain one country or dissolve into civil war.

How the Shiites rule Iraq, and how their Iraq relates to its Sunni neighbors and to Iran, a Shiite Islamic republic, could determine whether the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq produces a stable democracy, another Islamic republic or a new hotbed of terrorism and trouble in the heart of the Persian Gulf.

For most of the last century, Iraq's Sunni minority, about 20 percent of the population, ruled the Shiites and minority groups such as the Kurds and the Turkmens with extreme brutality. Saddam slaughtered thousands of Shiites and Kurds, but the country's main fault line is between the Shiite majority and the Sunnis, who consider the Shiites apostates for their religious beliefs.

On Sunday, Shiite-dominated political coalitions are almost certain to sweep the elections, and with some mainstream Sunni parties boycotting the vote, the first challenge of the new government will be to dispel doubts about its legitimacy.

"It isn't a real election," said retired Jordanian Gen. Ali Shukri, an expert on Iran and Iraq, summing up the view of many critics. "Geographically one half of Iraq and demographically, one third of Iraq are not voting. There has to be a parliament that rules Iraq. How does that happen without the acquiescence of the Sunnis? Can you really write the constitution for all of Iraq in that circumstance? It's mission impossible."

If they're to avoid further strife, the Shiites will have to involve Sunni leaders in the government and, just as important, in the drafting of a permanent constitution.

Within the leading Shiite coalition—the United Iraqi Alliance—debate has been fierce over the role of religious leaders in the government, and over whether Iraq, long a secular country, should be ruled, Iranian-style, by religious leaders. The Alliance was set up only after the country's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, called on squabbling Shiite factions to unite.

"At one point there was a huge fight. It just looked like some groups were trying to bring as many pro-Iranian people as possible onto the list," said one Alliance official, who asked not to be named out of fear for his safety.

Those efforts were defeated, and more recently the Alliance said that a cleric wouldn't be appointed prime minister.

"We will have a constitution-based democracy that has real respect for the freedom of Iraqis," added Abdulaziz al Hakim, a cleric who heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a key Alliance party. Governance by supreme clerical authority, as in Iran, "hasn't been found in Iraq, not in the past or present, and I don't know anyone calling for it."

It remains to be seen whether those sentiments will continue after the election.

Shiite politicians will be under pressure from devout voters to enforce religious tenets and laws. Local officials who now control Iraq's heavily Shiite southern and central cities already have added traditional Islamic rules to secular laws governing public conduct there.

Under the guidance of local clerics, Shiites pressure women into covering themselves from head to toe in black abayas, with at most their faces and hands showing, and they coerce shops, restaurants and hotels to stop selling alcohol.

These moves have alienated Kurdish and Sunni voters and could fuel secession efforts that could split Iraq into three countries; a Kurdish state in the north, a Sunni one in the middle and a Shiite one to the south, said Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi.

Oil revenue is another point of contention. Shiites and Kurds live in oil-rich areas. The Sunnis don't.

More than anything, Iraq's neighbors fear a civil war and a breakup of the country. Neither Iran nor Turkey—each with a sizeable Kurdish minority—is likely to accept Kurdish moves toward independence. A civil war in Iraq could drag in other countries, as well, including Syria, Iran and Jordan.

Bush strategists hope that a Shiite victory led by secular political moderates such as interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, will bring Iraq closer to the West. Arab leaders, however, worry about close ties, perhaps even an alliance, between a Shiite-run Iraq and Iran. The two countries fought a bloody war between 1980-88, but many of the leading Shiite candidates have strong links to the Islamic Republic, where they spent two decades in exile.

Jordan's King Abdullah II, the U.S.-led coalition's most vocal Arab supporter, charged in a Washington Post interview in December that Iran was sending a million Iranians into Iraq to vote as Iraqis, a claim Iran's ruling clerics denied.

"Iraq has turned into an arm-wrestling match between Iran and the Americans," said Abdallah Abu Romman, a prominent Jordanian columnist who said that America would likely lose the game. "Iraq won't be able to resist the wave (of pressure) coming from Iran."

U.S. officials believe that Iraqi Shiites are sincere about steering away from Iran's fundamentalist, theocratic example. And Iraqi candidates acknowledge that American and coalition support is vital to their new government, which will need to provide food, water, jobs and electricity for its constituents.

Iranian and Iraqi Shiites share close religious ties, but they're different ethnically. Iraqi Shiites are Arabs; Iranians are Persians. Many Iraqi families converted to the Shiite sect 200 years ago and remain strongly rooted in tribal social values and culture. Persians, by comparison, adopted the faith five centuries ago. Iraqi Shiites prefer a more tribal-oriented consensus of their religious leaders, rather than a single supreme leader as embraced by Iranians, whose history is packed with kingdoms and empires.

Even so, Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen are keeping a close eye on Shiite minorities in their countries, fearing they might be emboldened by the Iraqi outcome to demand a greater say in their own Sunni-dominated governments, or even some autonomy.

It's happened before. Lebanon's civil war, and Israel's 1981 invasion of the country, shattered the nation's fragile political arrangements and allowed the Iranians to rush to the aid of the country's downtrodden Shiites.


(Nelson reported from Amman, Jordan, special correspondent Ahmed reported from Baghdad. Knight Ridder correspondent Hannah Allam contributed to this report.)


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

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