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  • IraqThe First Arab Shia State
  • Vali Nasr (bio)

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Figure 1.

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Al-Rashid Street is an old colonnaded road of shops in the heart of Baghdad. At its entrance sits the historic British Residency, where the influential British administrator and diplomat Gertrude Bell, the famous "Daughter of the Desert" and "uncrowned queen of Iraq," once lived and literally drew Iraq onto the map.

Bell was a red-haired, Oxford-educated mountaineer and an honored poet with a passion for pearls, flowery hats, and everything Arab. She first went to the Middle East in 1900 and over the next decade crisscrossed the deserts of Arabia six times astride a camel, all along eating from fine china that her caravan lugged across the sandy terrain. When British attention turned to controlling Iraq after World War I, it was Bell, sitting in Al-Rashid Street, who determined the course of history. She conceived of Iraq and groomed its future king, Emir Faysal of Mecca. Bell showed him the country that he would rule, introduced him to local sheikhs, and explained tribal lineages and clan loyalties to him. She had a very clear idea of what Iraq would be and who would wield power in it.

It is said that Bell harbored deep suspicions of the Shia and had little patience for their prickly religious leaders, who she believed had most to do with the revolt against the British at the end of the war and who had always been a thorn in the side of her colleagues in neighboring Iran. The Shia ulama reciprocated, cultivating ample distrust of the British and nursing a bitterness that would percolate through the years. The Shia and their [End Page 133] religious leaders did not fit Bell's romantic view of Arabs. She did not know them, at least not as well as she knew the tribal leaders that she visited on her tours of the desert. The world of Shia's holy city, Najaf, was alien to her and would not have any place in the country that she imagined. The new state of Iraq would be entrusted to Sunnis. They would rule it for the following eight decades as a minority with the mindset of a majority, and Shias would look from the outside in, a majority that lived as a minority.

When King Faysal's twenty-three-year-old grandson Faysal II was overthrown and murdered in a July 1958 coup, the Shia enjoyed a brief taste of power, owing to the fact that the coup's leader, Colonel Qasim, whose mother was Shia, also had close ties with communists, many of whom were Shia. Qasim was overthrown in another coup in 1963, and the subsequent rise of Arab nationalism and pan-Arab Ba'thism only further marginalized the Shia. Ba'thism may have been secularist and nationalist on the surface, but at heart it was yet another vehicle for at times brutal Sunni hegemony. Many Shias embraced Arab nationalism, and some were initially prominent in the leadership of the Ba'th Party. But by the time the party took full control of power in 1968, it was led by a group of Sunnis with roots in the tightly knit tribes of Saddam's hometown of Tikrit and its environs. The tribal Sunni leadership was anti-Shia and anticommunist (which by default meant anti-Shia). Thirty-five years of Ba'th rule would prove hard for the Shias, and the Saddam years would be the worst. The Shia are predominantly a people of the Iraqi south. During Saddam's rule they were ruthlessly assaulted, their cities systematically neglected and starved of services, their magnificent riparian wetlands punitively drained so that they could no longer shelter anti-Saddam rebels as they had in the early 1990s. Many joined an accelerated exodus to Basra, Baghdad, and other Iraqi cities. Some one million Shias who just a generation or less ago could have been found on farms and in villages across the lower Tigris-Euphrates river system now eke out a precarious urban existence in the vast northeast Baghdad slum that was once known as Saddam City...


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