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Not Quite Iraq's First Shia Prime Minister

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By Farooq Sulehria

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 Shia.

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 Shia.

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.

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