Widespread unrest among Iraqi Shiites poses big challenge for U.S.

KARBALA, Iraq—A massive, weeklong Shiite Muslim pilgrimage to this holy city turned against the United States on Wednesday with fierce anti-American outpourings and a demand by a senior cleric that U.S. troops leave Iraq "as soon as possible."

It was the latest sign that once-downtrodden Shiite religious leaders are competing with U.S. forces to win control of post-war Iraq.

Upheaval among Shiite Muslims, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's population, confronts Washington with a major political challenge of preventing efforts to form a theocracy in Iraq and limiting the influence of neighboring Iran, which is tightly controlled by fundamentalist Shiite clerics.

Amid reports that Iranian agents are filtering across the border and that a senior exiled ayatollah will soon arrive from Iran, the White House warned Tehran against meddling.

"We have made clear to Iran that we would oppose any outside organization's interference in Iraq," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "Infiltration of agents to destabilize the Shi'a population clearly fall(s) into that category."

Karbala, a city sacred to Shiites, was the center of joyous celebrations over the past week as hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims arrived on foot to a gold-domed mosque to pay tribute to Ali Hussein, the prophet Mohammed's grandson, who was murdered more than 1,300 years ago. They shouted with passion—ecstatic to be able to commemorate a major part of their history that was banned for decades by Saddam Hussein.

But amid boisterous Shiite chanting of prayers, about 15 religious clerics and 300 of their supporters passed through the crowd waving anti-American and anti-Israeli posters.

"Death for America! Death for Israel!" they shouted in Arabic. "Yes, yes for freedom! Yes, yes for Hawza!"

Hawza is a widely known conservative Shiite seminary based in Najaf, another city sacred to Shiite Muslims, 50 miles south of Karbala.

The protesters waved banners that read, "We know what America does and we say no!" and, "America helps Israel kill Palestinians!"

A few hours after the protest, cleric Abdul Aziz al Hakim, a top leader of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a group linked to Iran's fundamentalist leaders, told journalists that his group had selected a spiritual leader for Iraqi Shiites, but he would not say who.

Some believed he was referring to his older brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al Hakim, who lives in exile in Iran.

Although the elder Hakim has weak religious credentials, he is backed by between 5,000 and 10,000 armed guerrilla fighters trained in Iran and known as the Badr Brigade.

The younger Hakim passed out a flier that said: "We want to warn the followers of the U.S. not to go deep into the American program. (They) should leave Iraq as soon as possible (or) pay for (their) faults."

Senior U.S. military officers said they were keeping an eye on competing interests trying to mold events in Iraq.

"Right now the Shi'a and any Iranian-influenced Shi'a actions are not an overt threat to coalition forces," Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the U.S. commander of land forces, said in a videoconference from Baghdad with Pentagon reporters Wednesday.

In Baghdad, a senior cleric, Sheik Mohammed Fartousi, accused U.S. forces of detaining him for two nights and denying him permission to pray.

Fartousi accused U.S. forces of interrogating him, handcuffing him and at times keeping him with a fabric hood over his head. He said he was denied permission to use the bathroom and offered only biscuits to eat.

The sheik said troops held him at an Army encampment, charging him with carrying a handgun, which he said he needed for self-protection.

Iraqi Shiites are Arabs, sharing no ethnicity with Persian-speaking Shiites in neighboring Iran. Most Iraqi Shiites sided with Saddam during Iraq's 1980-1988 war with Iran.

The nation's most senior Shiite religious leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, who has remained largely quiet and in self-imposed retreat in recent weeks, issued a statement voicing concern about Iranian-influenced clerics in Iraq.

Some officials inside the Bush administration appear to have been caught off guard by upheaval among the majority Shiites.

Officials in the CIA and State Department, and some outside experts, repeatedly warned top Pentagon civilians that Saddam's ouster would create a power vacuum that anti-American Shiite groups would try to fill, a senior administration official said.

"(Deputy Defense Secretary Paul) Wolfowitz and his people were told that Iranian-backed Shiite groups like SCIRI and the Dawa Party were well-equipped to take advantage of Saddam's fall, and that they had money and armed fighters, including the Badr Brigade," said one intelligence official who participated in the pre-war planning.

The official added: "They didn't have a clue, and they're surprised that the Iranians are trying to get involved."

There are not enough U.S. troops in Iraq to restore order, search for the leaders of the old regime and hunt for chemical and biological weapons, another administration official said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity.

One U.S. expert said Iraqi Shiite clerics are positioning themselves well as they deploy militias to halt looting, seize stolen property and meet humanitarian needs.

Iraqi clerics "have a parallel system of organizing their followers," said Martin Indyk, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution. "They are, in effect, competitors with us in delivering (services)."

Fartousi, 35, the senior cleric, arrived in Baghdad last week to oversee mosque-based humanitarian aid efforts for the Hawza seminary. He made his base the al Hikma Mosque in the huge slum formerly known as Saddam City, populated largely by Shiites.

Troops detained the sheik and seven others Sunday night and released him Tuesday morning. Shiites staged huge demonstrations on Monday and Tuesday outside the Palestine Hotel to protest his arrest.

Speaking to reporters, Fartousi warned U.S. troops to keep their hands off the Shiite clergy. "If they will arrest more and more Islamic teachers, the Iraqi anger will grow. The Iraqi people can fight for themselves," he said.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Carol Rosenberg in Baghdad, Iraq, and Jessica Guynn, Diego Ibarguen and Tim Johnson in Washington contributed to this report.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.