Fear of a Shia Planet


WASHINGTON, D.C.—When Ronald Reagan dispatched Donald Rumsfeld as his special envoy to meet Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 1984, the Republican administration was anxious to stop any westward expansion of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his force of Shia madmen, who had taken power in Tehran.

To that end, the U.S. sent war supplies and offered intelligence to Saddam to keep the Iranians from beating Iraq in the war then raging between the two countries.

Washington even went so far as to reflag Kuwaiti tankers carrying Iraqi oil that were being bombed by Iran in the Persian Gulf. It allowed them to fly the American flag and placed them directly under the protection of the U.S. Navy, whose presence then was being beefed up in the Gulf.

Ironically, 20 years later, with the outcome of Sunday’s elections in Iraq, we are at the threshold of enthusiastically achieving just what Rumsfeld was sent out to prevent—Shia rule in a broad crescent across the Middle East and atop the region’s most prized oil reserves. Shia government will stretch from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, and into Lebanon.

Nobody thinks that today the Shia in Iraq want to replicate the Iranian revolution—far from monolithic, the Shia of Iraq are deeply divided among themselves. But the election places into at least nominal power the first Shia government outside Iran. The chief figure in this government is not likely to be interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, the former CIA man and American surrogate, but the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose figure is always in the blurry background, and without whose permission nothing much is going to happen.

In another ironic turn of history, American military forces numbering at least 120,000 will be there to protect the Shia. Since the trained Iraqi security forces are now thought to number a bare 4,500, we will be around for several years to provide security. As President Bush put it, we must stay “at least until the Iraqis are able to fight.”

Bush has said the U.S. would leave if an elected Iraqi government asked for that. In reality, though, no elected government would survive for long under the present conditions without American help.

The 275 members of the Iraqi National Assembly will now write a constitution. There are numerous basic questions that must be addressed. Will the new government open Iraqi oil to foreign investment, and if so, on what terms? A long-standing goal of American foreign policy has been to cripple and curtail the reach of OPEC, of which Iraq, by dint of its enormous reserves, is a crucial part.

Will this constitution be a secular or religious document? Will it, for example, contain sharia law? Are we to see women’s property and divorce rights protected or tossed aside?

If, as some observers are predicting, it maintains a federalist principle, then it may open the way for Kurdish secession in the north.

“Repressed under the Ottomans, the British and then the pro-Western dictators of the region, the Shia will be a new and potent political force,” writes Robert Fisk in The Independent. “The kings and emirs of the Gulf are facing the prospect with trepidation.” In Bahrain, he notes, the Sunni monarchy dominates a Shia majority, which attempted an uprising in the 1990s. And in Saudi Arabia, the minority Shia are kept in place by repressive measures.

Iraq’s Shia majority have started a whole new ball game. Whereas in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the relatively powerless Shia hold some of the world’s richest oil reserves, in Iraq they now have the power to do something about it. The sea change in Iraq may cause Shia elsewhere to question why they don’t have more clout. This is especially true in Jordan, which is identified as a base for the current insurgency.

What does the Iraqi election mean for America? It means another $80 billion to support the Iraqi experiment, which in turn, doubtless means the American deficit will continue to grow larger. There will be less money for domestic social services. The war on terror will be more and more focused on underpinning the new Iraq—and maintaining a modicum of peace among Shia and Sunni Muslims and the Kurds.

Girl blog: Send kerosene

Can the new government in Iraq begin to deliver the everyday necessities of life? In her “girl blog” from Baghdad, found at, Riverbend lists them in this order:

1. 20 liters of gasoline

2. A cylinder of gas for cooking

3. Kerosene for the heaters

4. Those expensive blast-proof windows

5. Land mine detectors

6. Running water

7. Thuraya satellite phones (the mobile phone services are really, really bad of late).

8. Portable diesel generators (for the whole family to enjoy!)

9. Coleman rechargeable flashlight with extra batteries (you can never go wrong with a fancy flashlight).

10. Scented candles (it shows you care—but you’re also practical).

At your civil servants

In addition to institutionalizing their revolution through the Supreme Court, chipping away at Social Security until it collapses, and replacing the income tax with a flat tax, there is no more cherished goal among the conservative elites than getting rid of the federal civil service.

While the right-wingers currently can layer the top echelons of government with political appointees, and through privatizing outsource a considerable amount of work once done by the federal workers, they still are faced with the immovable object of a nonpartisan system for filling many of the ranks.

Last week Bush took a major step toward getting rid of it by implementing provisions of the act setting up the Department of Homeland Security. The new law allows the administration to hire and fire outside the civil service system. Under these procedures, the administration can curtail union rights and tie pay scales to what private employers pay workers.

Not surprisingly, government unions are suing to block the changes, which the Bush administration now says it wants to implement across the board. “The rules overturn 25 years of Civil Service law, radically reduce the rights of federal employees and deprive them of a voice over important issues like the time and place of work, overtime and the hiring of private contractors to do their jobs,” Gregory J. O’Duden, general counsel of the National Treasury Employees Union, told The New York Times.

Some 1.75 million people are employed by the federal government, with perhaps one-half that number represented by unions. A quarter of a million federal workers are in Washington. Donald Rumsfeld took a swipe at the unionized civil service during the first Bush administration with an announcement he wants to get rid of many permanent jobs—such as custodial work—that he argued could be carried out by the private sector for lower wages.

Scalia stumps for virgin birth

Thanks to a resurgence of interest in fundamentalist strains of Christianity, the realm of politics is being refreshed from any number of unexpected sources. In addition to such standard topics as the meaning of Israel in the end-times and ferreting out the Antichrist, there is fierce academic debate over God’s role in creating the Grand Canyon. Recently Justice Antonin Scalia, running neck and neck with fellow justice Clarence Thomas to become chief justice, jumped into the fray. In Baton Rouge for a Knights of Columbus shindig, Scalia took a moment to come to the defense of virgin birth. Noting that people widely mock such traditional beliefs, Scalia praised “traditional Catholics” who stand up for their faith, noting that “intellect and reason need not be laid aside for religion.”

“It is not irrational to accept the testimony of eyewitnesses who had nothing to gain,” said the justice. “There is something wrong with rejecting, a priori, the existence of miracles.

“If I have brought any message today, it is this: Have the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity. Be fools for Christ. And have the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world.”

Additional reporting: Nicole Duarte and David Botti