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

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More than 2 million Shiite 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 1 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 Shiites 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 Shiites and the U.S. strategy for containing Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq.

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

U.S. 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 U.S. 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 Shiite Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Modarresi, 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 Mohammed al-Fartusi, who they said had been arrested by U.S. 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 U.S. officials never confirmed he was initially detained.

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AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now!, as we move directly to Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims have converged on the Iraqi holy city of Karbala and are demanding U.S. troops get out of Iraq. The numbers could surpass 1 million this week as the pilgrimage reaches its climax. According to a front-page report in today’s Washington Post, Bush administration officials say they underestimated the organizational strength of the Shiites. They’re concerned the Shiites 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 Shiites in the U.S. strategy for containing Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq.

We’re going to go first to Al Jazeera correspondent Yousef Al-Shouly, who is reporting right now from Karbala.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Yousef.

YOUSEF AL-SHOULY: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe the scene in Karbala right now?

YOUSEF AL-SHOULY: Well, actually, more than 2 millions of people are gathering in the city in order to practice some religious behaviors and political behaviors, as well. Well, I can call these demonstrations as the spring of Karbala or the spring of Shiite in the world, because it is for the first time the Shiites in Iraq are practicing their rights, or religious rights, in such a way and such behavior and in obvious, since three decades, although this practice is being done while Iraq is passing through a difficult social and economic situation as a result of the war.

The people here are representing most of the Iraqi towns and villages in south and even in north Iraq. They are carrying their pamphlets and speaking and expressing themselves. And they want — as they say, they want independence. They want their freedom. They want the foreign troops to go out of Iraq. And also they want a new government, national unity government, that represents the people of Iraq to govern the country. They also are expressing their religious behaviors or religious beliefs and their political motivations. And they want to live in dignity, in peace, and to express themselves and to have their own human rights be safe. And also they are demanding that the prisoners should be freed. They are insisting that hundreds of thousands, as they say, of prisoners are still in jails, and they are asking the American troops to help them free those prisoners who are still in jail from the previous government. OK?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes. We’re speaking with Yousef Al-Shouly, reporting from Karbala. I wanted to ask your response to a Washington Post piece today that says Bush administration officials say they underestimated the organizational strength of the Shiites and that they’re concerned that they could establish a fundamentalist Islamic, anti-American government in Iraq, and are unprepared to prevent it. Your response, Yousef Al-Shouly?

YOUSEF AL-SHOULY: Well, actually, this demonstration and this gathering can be considered as a message to the United States that the Shiites are strong and they can do, if they want to do. Until now, I have heard from them that they want, by visual means, the American troops to go out. They are not restoring to other means right now. They said, “We are thankful for the Americans that they have liberated us from the previous government. But now we want them to go out.”

Well, actually, what you have asked about maybe have some right aspects of the questions. But what I’ve heard and I’ve seen from the Iraqi people, they do not want to live in this. They don’t want wars. They said, “We have witnessed three wars during the past three decades, and that’s enough. We are fed up, and we want to live in dignity. We want to live in peace.”

Actually, the Shiites’ religious school, what they call it here, the hawza, are strong enough. And from three days, for the bus, three days, in Karbala, I think that the hawza have succeeded in organizing this gathering in such a way that there is no disturbances, no any even trouble that someone or somebody speculates it will occur during this ceremony. But since they have succeeded in this gathering, I think they have the capability or the capacity to succeed in the coming exercises, if that can happen. OK?

AMY GOODMAN: Yousef Al-Shouly, last question: The reports that U.S. troops detained and later released a senior Shiite Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Modarresi, the leader of an Iraqi exile group, after he crossed the border from Iran to attend the pilgrimage in Karbala?

YOUSEF AL-SHOULY: Well, I have heard from unconfirmed reports that Mujahedin-e-Khalq have arrested him and released him after crossing the border from Iran to Iraq. I don’t know whether the Americans or the other groups have arrested him. But actually, I have received a pamphlet from his office. In that pamphlet, he is insisting on the religious aspects of this event, of this ceremony. He have — I mean, that pamphlet have not mentioned any political or current situation in Iraq. And that’s what I have known about. And I’ve asked some senior officials from religious parties here, and nobody has any information about this allegation. But the people say he was arrested and he was released later on, on the crossing point between Iran and Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Do people want a fundamentalist Islamic, anti-American government in Iraq?

YOUSEF AL-SHOULY: Well, the people want to govern themselves through a elected government, that represents the majority, as they say here in Karbala. The majority, according to them, is Shiite. They don’t want what we call tourist or every other organizations. They want to live in peace, freedom, dignity, and to — they can utilize their wealth, I mean, the Iraqi wealth. And they don’t mind that others can show them in doing this, but they have to be — the firstly is their state, not the others. So they want the foreigners to go out from them, peacefully. They are thankful for them, but enough. They want independence, and that’s what they are saying.

AMY GOODMAN: Yousef Al-Shouly, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Yousef Al-Shouly is the Al Jazeera correspondent, speaking to us from southern Iraq, in Karbala. You are listening to Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll talk about the significance of the Shia pilgrimage and the conflict that is going on in Iraq right now. You’re listening to The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy Now!, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. The front-page piece of The Washington Post by Glenn Kessler and Dana Priest, “U.S. Planners Surprised by Strength of Iraqi Shiites.” “As Iraqi Shiite demands for a dominant role in Iraq’s future mount, Bush administration officials say they underestimated the Shiites’ organizational strength and are unprepared to prevent the rise of an anti-American, Islamic fundamentalist government in the country. … As the administration plotted to overthrow Hussein’s government, U.S. officials said this week, it failed to fully appreciate the force of Shiite aspirations and is now concerned that those sentiments could coalesce into a fundamentalist government. Some administration officials were dazzled by Ahmed Chalabi, the prominent Iraqi exile who is a Shiite and an advocate of a secular democracy. Others were more focused on the overriding goal of defeating Hussein and paid little attention to the dynamics of religion and politics in the region.”

We’re going to continue to talk about this issue right now, continue to talk about the issue of both the Shiites in relation to the U.S. government and the troops that are there, as well as the Shiites in relation to the Sunnis.

We’re joined by As’ad AbuKhalil, who is a professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of Bin Laden, Islam, and America’s New “War on Terrorism.”

Your comment on this?

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Well, I think this is a very important development. And I think the level of ignorance on the part of U.S. policymaker can never be underestimated. And I read this piece in The Washington Post. What I find very interesting is that: How could people plan a war against a country and know so little, if anything, about what’s going on?

And it’s very true, what they said in the article about the extent to which they wanted to believe everything that this embezzler, Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the so-called Iraqi National Congress — they believed what he said about Iraq and what he told them about Iraqi public opinion, without noticing that he has never been there in 45 years, and that he has absolutely no popular base in that country.

And what Yousef Al-Shouly — he’s a great reporter; I watch him all the time on Al Jazeera. But I was reading before I came with you on Al Jazeera website about some of the slogans that are being chanted. And it’s very interesting. Most of them emphasize that the people who speak on their own behalf are the clerical leadership of Najaf, the highly important religious site inside Iraq. And many of the chants are, in fact, against Israel and the United States. Some of them are indistinguishable from the slogans we hear in Iran: “Death to Israel. Death to the United States.” And also, there were some slogans against Ahmed Chalabi himself. I can guarantee you, this self-designated leader of Iraq, that the United States was hoping to be the Hamid Karzai of the new republic that the United States was going to establish in Iraq, will not dare step foot in any of those areas where the majority of Iraqis live.

So, this is something about the future. And don’t be surprised if years from now, when we have a new Islamic republic in Iraq, that will be aligned with Iran, that some people among the policymaker feel suddenly nostalgic to the rule of Saddam Hussein. They absolutely had no idea what they were going into. And when many of us in the antiwar movement — and most Middle East academics I know have been opposed to this war. And even with the intoxication with the so-called quick military victory that they have on their hand, they did not have any estimation of the long-term and even shorter-term political repercussions of the country.

What Yousef said about that, at this point, there is kind of an agreement that the resistance to the occupation of the United States is peaceful, for the time being, I think it’s true. However, some new groups are sprouting. And some of them, with new names, are claiming responsibility on behalf of attacks against U.S. troops in the country. So, we are into a very long chapter of U.S. involvement with the Iraqi resistance movement. And it is very much — as somebody who lived under Israel occupation after 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, I am very much reminded of the kind of cycle that began with that invasion. The victorious army becomes very intoxicated with victory, and they think they can smash any resistance movement, any voice that they don’t like, by military force. And after several years of bloody encounters, they pack, and then they leave.

I also want to say, in this regard, that the people in the government, how ignorant they were about what happened. Paul Wolfowitz, one of the key policymaker on Iraq, deputy secretary of defense, and he gave an interview last year in which he said Iraqi Shiites are different from other people, because they are all secular. And he said they also don’t have religious sites like Saudi Arabia. I mean, think about this. This guy is considered to be the in-house expert on Islam, because he serves for one year in Indonesia as ambassador, did not know the significance of the holy sites inside Iraq. I mean, even people in South Lebanon, where I come from, the Shiites there have strong orientation towards the south of the country for that reason.

And then they decide to have a leader for Iraq, Ahmed Chalabi, who has strong ties to Israel. He’s close friends with Natan Sharansky. We are told he’s been to Israel. And he sent a representative, Kanan Makiya, to represent him at the last conference of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, D.C. And they think Iraqis will not care about all these developments. Well, obviously they do.

AMY GOODMAN: 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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