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Pilgrimage and Protest, the Shia of Iraq: We Speak to Professor Abukhalil About Shia Sentiment in Iraq

April 23, 2003


More than two million Shi’ite Muslims are converging on the Iraqi holy city of Karbala, an Al-Jazeera correspondent told Democracy Now! today. Many of them are demanding that U.S. troops get out of the country. The numbers could surpass one million this week as the pilgrimage climaxes.

According to a front-page report in today’s Washington Post, Bush administration officials say they underestimated the organizational strength of the Shiites. They are concerned the Shi’ites could establish a fundamentalist, Islamic, anti-American government in Iraq and are unprepared to prevent it.

A meeting of generals and admirals at the Pentagon on Monday turned into a spontaneous teach-in on Iraq’s Shi’ites and the U.S. strategy for containing Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq.

One of the main strategic goals of the US since the Iranian revolution in 1979 has been to contain radical Shiite fundamentalism. In the 1980s, the US backed Saddam Hussein as a bulwark against Iran. But now the US has toppled Saddam’s government.

US officials told the Washington Post that as the administration plotted to overthrow the Iraqi government, too little attention was paid to the dynamics of religion and politics in the region.

This comes as US officials told the New York Times that Iranian-trained agents have crossed into southern Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein and are working in the cities of Najaf, Karbala and Basra to promote friendly Shiite clerics and advance Iranian interests.

Meanwhile, U.S. troops detained and later released a senior Shi’ite Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mudaressi, leader of an Iraqi exile group, after he crossed the border from Iran to attend the pilgrimage in Karbala.

And in Baghdad, hundreds of Shiites yesterday staged demonstrations outside the Palestine Hotel for the second straight day. They demanded the release of Baghdad’s leading Shiite cleric Sheikh Muhammad al-Fartusi, who they said had been arrested by US forces.

One of al-Fartusi’s students, who organized the protests, told the Wall Street Journal: "Saddam was talking about freedom while killing us. The Americans are also talking about freedom, but they are beginning to behave like Saddam."

Within hours, it was reported that the cleric had been released from custody, although US officials never confirmed he was initially detained.

  • Yousef Allshouly, Al-Jazeera correspondent reporting from Karbala.
  • As’ad AbuKhalil, Professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. Author of ??Bin Laden, Islam and America’s New War on Terrorism.

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