Rumsfeld's rejection of Islamic state angers Shias

By Phil Reeves in Baghdad

26 April 2003

Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of State, will have won plaudits from his zealous friends by declaring that an "Iranian-style" Islamic government "is not going to happen" in Iraq. But his words fell on stony ground outside the al-Muhsen mosque in Baghdad yesterday.

Members of the huge Shia crowd gathered for Friday prayers were quick to spot the contradiction in his position.

"I thought the Americans said they wanted a democracy in Iraq," said Kassem al-Sa'adi, a 41-year-old merchant. "If it is a democracy, why are they allowed to make the rules?"

About 13,000 people gathered outside the mosque where the imam, Jabal al-Khafji called for an Islamic state in Iraq. The cleric's view is widely shared by Iraq's Shia majority which is clamouring for the occupying forces to be removed.

Dr al-Khafji said that no political alliances should be formed by Shia groups unless it was with Islamic groups. Islam must dictate all policy-making, he added.

Any move to an Iranian-style Shia Islamic state would also be opposed by the Kurds, the Iraqi secular intelligentsia and the Sunni minority. Yet pressure is building. Iran is quietly at work in Iraq's Shia community, with intelligence agents reportedly active in the south. The Iranian-backed Badr militia has been asserting itself in border towns.

The millions of Shias who gathered this week in the holy city of Karbala served as a warning to the US that it must find some way of accommodating the clerics. A move in that direction was evident yesterday on the streets.

Patrolling the worshippers was a band of Iraqi policemen wearing freshly pressed uniforms, moustaches and nervous frowns. They are members of the old civil police force. They played a mundane walk-on part in the regime's apparatus but their appearance was enough to set off alarm bells.

These men had been re-packaged in an effort to ease their passage into one of the most sensitive parts of the new Iraq. It was also a tentative attempt to bring the Shias under the larger umbrella of the still-unformed government and its law enforcement agencies. Only a few carried pistols, and these were hidden.

All wore labels stating their rank and – in an effort to establish their legitimacy before the locals – a logo showing Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr, the Shia cleric whose murder by Saddam has made him a martyr. His stature is such that Saddam City – the Shia quarter of Baghdad – has been renamed after him.

While the crowd listened to the imam's address, police formed a line separating the media from the mullahs and their followers. But their authority was nothing compared to the other force supervising the occasion – young men with ammunition belts and Kalashnikovs, charged by their religious leaders with maintaining order. They directed the traffic and the crowds, and stood on the rooftops, guarding against attack. These are part of the Shia apparatus which currently runs the show in this part of the capital, just as they do in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala and some of the border towns.