Shia Party Rises From the Ashes

ARBIL – In the early days of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, when the international media was discovering mass graves throughout the country, journalists of all types were documenting the full scope of the old regime’s brutality.

Having just arrived myself, I paid a visit to the Free Prisoners Committee. The U.S. military had given Saddam’s political prisoners an old Ba’ath party building and custody of many of the regime’s prison records.

A visit to the center allowed me to delve deeper into Saddam’s human rights record. When I got there, I found that a preponderance of the former prisoners were members of the Da’wa (Islamic Call) Party of Iraq’s now likely prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari.

Looking back on it now, I can see the rise of Shia religious parties as the most logical conclusion to almost two years of occupation and resistance. Shias make up more than 60 percent of Iraq’s population (about 26 million), and Shia political movements had always been ruthlessly suppressed by Saddam.

I remember a 35-year-old man named Ali Mohammed. I saw him weeping outside the Free Prisoners Committee. All four of his brothers had disappeared more than 20 years ago, after Saddam Hussein destroyed the Da’wa Party in the early 1980s.

"I just found two of them," he said, trying to keep his tears from flowing, his hand pointing at a paper on the wall. "My brother Karem Mohammed was executed March 12, 1983. My brother Adel Mohammed was killed January 2, 1982. The last time I saw them was in March of 1981, 22 years ago. I was 13 and my brothers were older. They were studying for their exams." His other two brothers were still missing, he said.

But he was proud of the two brothers who had been executed by Saddam’s regime. "I’m very proud that they are martyrs," he said. "I know they are all dead, but they are heroes. The regime tried very hard to get them to join the Ba’ath Party, but they wouldn’t. They stood by their principles, and for that they got executed."

Founded as a movement to make Iraq an Islamic Republic, the Da’wa Party became emboldened after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah of Iran and imposed his version of Islamic law in 1979.

After the revolution in Iran, the leader of the Da’wa Party, Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr (uncle of current U.S. enemy, cleric Moqtada al-Sadr) issued a religious order, or fatwa, prohibiting Muslims from joining the Ba’ath party or its affiliated organizations. He then led a wave of massive demonstrations against Saddam’s regime throughout the country.

In response, Saddam detained Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr and brought him to Baghdad, putting him under house arrest. His sister, Bint al-Huda, went to the holy shrine of Imam Ali and gave a fiery speech urging Iraqis to demonstrate against the government and protect their leader.

As the news of his arrest spread, riots broke out across Iraq – in Baghdad, Basra, Diyala, Samawa, Kuwt, Diwaniyya, Karbala, and other cities. The bazaar in Najaf shut down; angry crowds clashed with the police. The whole city seemed under siege as the government rapidly increased its security efforts. The spread of violence forced the regime to free Sadr the next day.

But the victory for the Da’wa Party was short-lived. Tension between Saddam’s secular Ba’ath regime and Sadr’s Islamic Da’wa Party continued to rise. Islamic activists threw a bomb at Ba’ath Party leader Tariq Aziz (now in U.S. custody as one of Iraq’s 52 most wanted) at Mustansuriye University, injuring him and killing his bodyguards. At the public funeral for the guards, another bomb was thrown at the funeral procession. Several more were killed.

Saddam responded by calling for revenge against the perpetrators. On March 31, 1980, the regime’s Revolutionary Command Council passed a law sentencing to death all past and present members of the Da’wa party, its affiliated organizations, and people working for its goals.

To the end, Sadr refused to back down. In a message issued shortly before his execution, Sadr issued an ultimatum to his followers: topple the regime and establish an Islamic government in its place.

"It is incumbent on every Muslim in Iraq and every Iraqi outside Iraq to do whatever he can, even if it costs him his life, to keep the jihad and struggle to remove this nightmare from the land of beloved Iraq, to liberate themselves from this inhuman gang, and to establish a righteous, unique, and honorable rule based on Islam," he said.

The security forces came for Sadr and his sister on April 5, 1980, and detained them in the headquarters of the National Security Agency in Baghdad. Two weeks later, Iran’s new ruler Ayatollah Khomeini announced their executions. When the expected revolt came, U.S. President Jimmy Carter stood by as Saddam’s forces killed tens of thousands. The last thing Washington wanted was another Khomeini in Iraq. Carter, it seemed, preferred Saddam.

But while Carter turned a blind eye to Saddam’s crackdown, Iraq’s now likely prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari fought the regime. A medical doctor who joined the Da’wa Party as a student in 1968, he became a leader in the party and – like many other members of the victorious Shia slate in the Jan. 30 election – fled to Iran after Saddam’s crackdown.

There he spent a decade organizing armed resistance to Saddam’s regime at a time when Washington, under President Ronald Reagan, supported Saddam’s government in its war against clerical Iran.

Over time, though, Jaafari moderated on his support for the Iranian modal. In 1989, Jaafari left Iran for Britain at a time when the Da’wa party split into two camps – one which backed closer ties with Iran, and the other opposing Iranian influence. Jaafari, like other members of the victorious Shia slate, now opposes direct clerical rule, but rather sees Islam as a "source for legislation" particularly in areas such as family law and inheritance. In 2004, when he served on the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, he pushed for a rule that would have adopted Islamic law on the status of women.

It was, of course, not through this geopolitical lens that visitors to the Free Prisoners Committee viewed the deaths of their loved ones in the early days of the occupation.

"Terrible things were happening to all us Iraqi people under that psychopath Saddam Hussein," Ali Mohammed told me after finding the records of two of his four brothers. "I don’t want to thank America for that because God is the person who pushed America to liberate us from Saddam Hussein. We are thankful to God."

He added: "God alone has liberated us. The Americans are invaders."

I asked Ali Mohammad if he was optimistic about the future. "Only God knows," he replied. "If the Americans stay here, I don’t think the future will be good."

"Why?" I asked.

"We are Muslims," came the answer. "We can’t allow other people who are not Muslims to come here and rule us. No man could just let the invaders rule. We will fight against that. Invasion is not the right thing to do for any people. We don’t hate the American people, but we don’t like invasions, and we will fight."

Almost two years after the invasion of Iraq, Shia religious parties turned to a nonviolent method of resistance. They used an election organized by Washington to elect a slate of candidates the U.S. government had tried to suppress throughout the 1980s.

(Inter Press Service)