Ibrahim al-Jaafri, who took oath on
April 7 as the prime minister for Iraq's interim government, is not Iraq's first
Shia prime minister. The Dawa party leader is in fact the third Iraqi Shia to
hold this office -- the other two held this post long before Iraq was divided
along Shia-Sunni lines.
It was after the March 1947 elections
that Salih Jabr, the first ever Shia prime minister in Iraq, took office. Iraqi
society at the time was polarised between the forces of reaction and revolution.
The Revolution was still eleven years away. Jabr in office proved as repressive
as his predecessors.
Fahd, the legendary Communist leader,
and two other communists were awarded death sentences. Moderate left parties
were banned. The repression was aimed at silencing all the opposition in view of
a proposed treaty that Britain wanted to impose on Iraq, against which Iraq
revolted. Jabr's return on January 26, 1948, after signing the treaty, was
greeted by a mass demonstration. The police fired at the demonstrators, leaving
between 300 to 400 people dead. But Jabr had to resign and he was replaced by
another Shia prime minister: Muhammad al-Sadr.
Sadr's main task was to organise new
elections. The elections, rigged as usual, paved the way for maverick Nuri
Pasha. A trusted British puppet, Nuri first act on assuming power was to order
the public hanging of Fahd (a Christian by birth) and his comrades: Zaki Basim
and Hussain Muhammad al-Shabibi.
Nine years on, Revolution was marching
on Baghdad streets. While attempting to escape revolutionary Baghdad, Nuri was
caught by a mob and publicly hanged.
The year of revolution (1958) was the
high point in Iraq's history. Kassem and his Free Officers were lent support by
all sections of the society: Shia, Sunnis, minorities, Arabs, Kurds, and
non-Arabs. Most importantly, Iraq's biggest political party, the Iraqi Communist
Party (ICP) was supporting the revolution. A majority of Shias and Kurds also
supported the ICP.
Baath Party, a small organisation at
the time, did not attract the Shia even though it was founded in 1952 by a Shia:
Faud al-Rikabi. Ibrahim al-Jaafri's Dawa party did not exist at the time even in
an embryonic form, and the Shia clergy was preaching against communism. However,
the presence of only two Shia officers in 15 Free Officers reflected the grave
reality facing Iraqi society: under-representation of Shias at top military,
bureaucratic positions. This is the case even today.
This fact, however, has a historical
basis that contradicts the perception projected by the media that there is a
fundamental conflict between Shias and Sunnis. According to the mainstream
media, the principal tension in Iraq derives from the fact that a Sunni minority
has been ruling over Shia majority. This projection is based on facts like the
Iran-Iraq war in which Shias fought against Iran and Saddam's anti-Shia drive in
the wake of the Iranian revolution and following the first Gulf War. Economic
and political indicators are further cited to prove the oppression of the Shia.
This analysis may appear attractive but it is inadequate.
The fundamental divisions are not
'sectarian' but socio-economic between the haves and have-nots. The bulk of
Iraqi population lives in the south and a majority of these rural-dwellers are
In the wake of First World War, the
rural poor migrated to the large towns, particularly Baghdad and urban slums
sprang up. The rural poor were not poor because they were Shia but because in
the recent past with the advent of British imperialism, the tribal diras
(estates) in the south had been appropriated by the tribal chiefs. Thus
tribesmen were left either without land or with very little land for their
subsistence. The strong tribal chiefs who appropriated the land were themselves
The urban Shia population in the towns
that had settled for centuries in Karbala, Najaf, Khadimian and parts of Baghdad
was mainly involved in trade. This urbanised Shia population distanced itself
from successive governments (Ottoman, British, and Arab) and did not see
government jobs as promising careers. Under the Ottomans, it was the Sunnis that
made up the rank and file of the bureaucracy. With the arrival of British, Sunni
families made the most of bureaucratic and military jobs. This, however, started
changing with the passage of time. And the monarchy was in general careful not
to interfere with the internal affairs of Shia holy places. Under Kassem and
Arif brothers (1958-68), this circumspection continued.
Even Baath, on assuming power, did not
repress Shias. Their first target was the communists, followed by the Kurds. It
was not until the communists and Kurds had been dealt with, and Baath (Saddam
faction) had consolidated itself that the Shia began to be targeted.
Nonetheless, Saddam's anti-Shia drive
needs to be understood in two ways. First, Saddam after having consolidated
himself, wanted to penetrate every institution of society including the
religious. Baath attempt to control public life -- a trait common to all
varieties of totalitarian regimes -- brought the party regime in contradiction
with Shia clergy, which resisted and tried to maintain its independence.
Saddam's response was repression.
The second, but most important, factor
was the Iranian revolution. Khomeni was preaching the 'theory of permanent
Islamic revolution'. Since his Shia variety of Islamic revolution stood a good
chance in Shia-majority Iraq, Saddam started getting nervous. The Iranian
revolution engendered a tremendous sense of optimism amongst Iraq's Shia
leaders, who made open declarations of their support to it. Saddam's response
was repression-as-usual. Dawa (founded by Shia clergy in 1968) membership was
made punishable by death. Shia leader Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and his sister Bint
Huda were executed in 1980. However, Saddam was not repressing the Shia
population in particular. He was repressing all dissent: communists, Kurds,
Christians, Shias, Sunnis.
Saddam's extermination of communists,
in collaboration with CIA, had made political space available to Shia parties
who could now sustain themselves thanks to the support and bases lent by Iran.
Second, in the wake of the first Gulf War, the West was lending them a helping
hand. It should therefore be no surprise if the United Iraqi Council emerges as
the largest block in Iraq after the January 30 elections, thus paving the way
for a Shia prime minister. The Shia question, however, was and remains that of
class rather than religion. Ibrahim al-Jafaari will not be able to resolve it by
selling Iraq to Halliburton.