Will Iraq turn into Islamic state?

That’s what Shi’ite fundamentalists are pushing for but after all is said and done, it’s what the US wants that really counts after Saddam.

SHOULD Iraq be run as an Islamic state?

That question is splitting Iraqis in the power vacuum left by the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Some clerics from the largest Muslim group here – the Shi’ites – are pressing for one.

But they face opposition from many Sunni Muslims, former Baathist apparatchiks and minority Christians, for whom Shi’ite domination is poison.

Their preference is for a secular government, an arrangement which they believe will give groups other than the Shi’ites a fairer deal in a post-Saddam Iraq.

These fault lines in Iraqi society, marked also by pervasive internal divisions among the Shi’ites, are coming to the fore just weeks after American tanks rumbled into the capital, marking an end to the Saddam regime.

Shi’ite clerics have moved since to restore order to war-torn streets. By taking over vital governmental functions, they are the de facto authority figures in the Shi’ite holy cities of Kerbala, Najaf and Kut.

Most importantly, the Shi’ites have displayed their raw power with a mass pilgrimage and street demonstrations marked by intense religious fervour.

Asked about the calls for a theocracy based on Syariah laws, Al-Sheikh Hussein Al-Harithi, a 34-year-old Shi’ite leader, told The Sunday Times: ‘It is the best form of government for Iraq because it will protect the interest of all the Muslims who have been persecuted for so long under Saddam.’

Political observers say that such sentiments – the result of decades of playing second fiddle to Sunni-dominated rule – underpin the three main Shi’ite factions that are pushing for Islamic fundamentalist rule as practised by neighbouring Iran.

The largest group is led by Ayatollah Mohamed Baqir Al-Hakim, who spent the past 20-years in Iran and is close to religious conservatives in Teheran, where he is based. He heads the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution and an outfit of 10,000 militiamen known as Badr corps.

His Supreme Council boycotted the recent US-sponsored meeting which sought to gather Iraq’s different political groups for a discussion on the country’s future.

The other two Shi’ite groups are based in Najaf.

One is led by Sheikh Mohamed Al-Fatousi, who has called for a strict adherence to Islamic law and a ban on music, dancing and anything Western.

The other is led by Moqtada Al-Sadr, son of a sheikh who was assassinated in 1999 for opposing Saddam.

But analysts believe that these conservative elements will not get their way easily, given that Iraq’s Shi’ites are a divided bunch led by senior clerics jockeying for power.

This internal power struggle turned bloody in recent weeks with the murder of two Shi’ite clerics – the US-backed Abdul Majid Al-Khoei, who was opposed to Saddam and had returned to Iraq from exile, and Haider Al-Kadar, a cleric loyal to the former Iraqi leader and widely hated by Shi’ites.

There is also a split between the Shi’ites who stayed in Iraq and those who fled to Iran during the Saddam years.

The Shi’ite moderates are making it clear that an Islamic state would be a disaster.

One of them, Sheikh Ayad Jamal Al-Din, said: ‘The Islamic community can only flourish in circumstances of freedom which separate religion from politics, so that dictators can no longer be able to speak in the name of Islam.’

This dovetails with what the Sunnis and Christians want. The Sunnis, who make up about 35 per cent of Iraq’s population, generally prefer a secular government.

Said one Sunni religious leader, Sheikh Khalid Adnan: ‘The important thing is that every ethnic and religious group is represented in the government.’

The Christians are terrified of Shi’ite rule, fearing persecution for being members of a non-Muslim community and one that is moreover identified with the hated American ‘crusaders’.

Ms Amira Michael, a 30-year-old clerk, said that she and many of her Christian friends were afraid of moves to turn Iraq into a theocracy.

‘It will just divide the country more and lead to more suffering,’ she said.

The Sunday Times spoke to 10 lraqis for their views on the direction they wanted the country to take.

Whether Sunni or Shi’ite, most of them are opposed to the idea of a conservative Islamic state like Iran.

But they appear more amenable to the idea of an Iraq in which Islam has a more pronounced role in public life.

Ms Huda Abdul Kafa, 30, said she dreaded the thought of an Islamic regime that curbed the rights of women.

‘I don’t like what I see happening in Saudi Arabia and Iraq where women are forced to do things against their will,’ she said. ‘We want greater rights and freedom now.’

Much of what happens in Iraq, however, will depend less on what the man in the street wants than the direction set by individual Islamic clerics who have the power to mobilise thousands.

More important in the grand scheme of things is the United States.

Reflecting widely held sentiments here, Mr Fuad K. Mustafa, a hotel manager, said: ‘All these aspirations for power and divisions among the Sunnis and Shi’ites are just academic.

‘In the end, Iraqis are not going to have a say in who runs this country. The Americans have probably got a puppet ready somewhere.

‘After waiting all these years to topple Saddam, they are not going to do something crazy like letting an Islamic fundamentalist take control of Iraq.’

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