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Fact Sheet: The Shiites of Iraq

The Shiites of Iraq, who make up 60 percent of the population but were repressed under Saddam Hussein, are moving swiftly to fill the power vacuum created by his ouster. Already the second most powerful force in Iraq behind U.S. forces, they are resisting foreign intervention and distrust the United States.

Some questions and answers about Iraqi Shiites and their hopes to gain a strong voice in their nation's future.

Q. Who are the Shiites?

A: Shiite Muslims make up less than 15 percent of the world's 1 billion Muslims, but they are the majority in Iran and Iraq. Islam has been divided between Sunnis and Shiites since soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, founder of the religion, in 632. Sunnis followed Abu Bakr, a respected contemporary of the prophet, while a small group, the "shi'at Ali," or party of Ali, followed the much younger Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-and-law. After the prophet's death, rivalry between the two groups periodically exploded into violence and had a profound effect on the development of Islam. Shiites venerate both Ali and his son Hussein, the prophet's grandson, whose death at the hands of Sunnis in a 7th century battle on the plains of Karbala in what is now Iraq is still remembered in emotional annual rituals.

Q: What do Iraqi Shiites want now?

A: With the collapse of Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime, the Shiites aspire to claim political dominance for the first time in modern Iraqi history. In the past week, Shiite clerics have appointed governors, imposed curfews and offered jobs, health care and financial assistance to the poor. Shiites have protested against both U.S. forces and exiled leaders now returning to Iraq. They erupted in jubilation at Saddam's ouster, practicing their rituals in public for the first time in years. In a Baghdad district known as Saddam City, Shiite clerics are running their own police force, hospitals, clinics and food distribution centers. In the city of Kut, southeast of Baghdad, Shiite cleric Said Abbas has occupied city hall and insisted that he is leader. Shiite clerics are leading self-declared governments in the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. "It's a historic occasion for the Shiites to demand a major voice in the future government of Iraq," said R.K. Ramazani, a renowned expert on Shiites at the University of Virginia.

Q: Iran is a Shiite majority country, too. Would a Shiite-dominated Iraq end up being an Iranian-style theocracy?

A: Not necessarily. Some Shiite leaders have questioned whether Western democratic values are suited for Iraq, but at a U.S.-sponsored meeting this week near the ancient city of Ur to create a postwar government, 80 or so participants, including Shiites, agreed that Iraq must be democratic. However, Iraq's largest Shiite group, the exiled Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, boycotted the meeting. Ramazani said there are seeds of pluralism inside Shiite tradition that the United States and its allies should exploit. As an example, he said individual Shiite clerics have traditionally issued decrees that other clerics do not necessarily have to accept. Even so, the Islamic fundamentalism associated with Iran could work against the Iraqi Shiites as they vie for power in the new government.

Q: Would Iran exercise undue influence in an Iraq dominated by Shiites?

A: Again, not necessarily. Iraqi Shiites are Arab, not Persian like their Iranian counterparts, and have a strong sense of Iraqi nationalism. During the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988, they did not rise up against Saddam or fight for Iran. Still, whether Iran will try to take advantage of Shiite dominance in Iraq is an open question. During the war to oust Saddam, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld alleged that Iranian-sponsored fighting forces were inside Iraq, presenting a potential threat to U.S. and allied troops.

Q: Are Shiites in Iraq a unified force?

A: No. In a sign of the fissures plaguing Iraq's Shiite community, a mob last week killed Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a prominent Shiite cleric opposed to Saddam, and Haider al-Kadar, a cleric loyal to Saddam and widely hated by Shiites. The clerics had been visiting a shrine in southern Iraq to promote Shiite unity. There is also a split between Shiites who stayed in Iraq and those who fled to Iran during the Saddam years. In addition, "there is at least a quiet competition between the Shias of Karabla and the Shias of Najaf," Ramazani said. The possibility of inter-Shiite violence could hamper efforts to establish a viable postwar state.

Q: Would Shiite dominance of Iraq produce a Sunni backlash?

A: Possibly. Sunni political dominance stretches back to the birth of Iraq as a state after World War I. Sunnis have dominated education, the army and the economy, using military force to repress rivals. They are unlikely to surrender influence easily.