Not very far south of Baghdad, the Shiite heartland begins. Unlike the areas north and west of the Iraqi capital -- the so-called Sunni Triangle -- where there are frequent bombings and the heavy presence of U.S. forces, the Shiite areas of Iraq are relatively quiet. Especially in the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala, it is rare to see an armored vehicle, and rarer still to hear the rotors of an American helicopter overhead. It is often hard to remember, when you visit, that there was a war at all.
But if the war seems distant, God is everywhere. In the Shiite regions, the images of Saddam Hussein that glowered in various poses from countless walls and ceremonial arches were almost immediately replaced, after the fall of his government, by images of Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and his son, Imam Hussein. These are the most revered of the first Shiite imams, martyred during the schism in early Islam that divided Muslims into Shiites and Sunnis. Imam Ali was assassinated in a mosque in Kufa, near Najaf, in 661; Imam Hussein was killed in battle near Karbala in 680 in a vain attempt to defeat the Sunni forces he viewed as having usurped his right to the caliphate.
In the markets of Najaf, the Shiite spiritual and academic center, as elsewhere in any heavily Shiite area of Iraq from Baghdad to Basra, you can buy garishly colored posters and cheaply woven rugs with images of Imam Ali and Imam Hussein. Shop windows all over Shiite Iraq are adorned with poster portraits not only of the first Shiite imams but also of more recent martyrs -- the Shiite imams murdered during Saddam Hussein's 33-year rule. There are portraits of Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr, a cleric who, along with his sister, was executed in Baghdad in 1980. There are portraits of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a member of the same family of clerics, who was assassinated in 1999, probably on Saddam Hussein's orders. And there are also portraits of Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, who returned from exile in Iran after the fall of Saddam Hussein, only to be killed in Najaf last August by a car bomb that also took the lives of more than 80 of his followers.
It is a truism that the past is far more alive in the Arab world than it is in the United States or in Western Europe. This is surely the case in the Shiite areas of Iraq, where the dead sometimes seem to have a greater presence, and certainly more authority, than the living. Talk to Iraqi Shiites, and you can get the disconcerting sense that the conversation -- self-evidently to them, incomprehensibly to you -- is constantly shifting backward or forward in time. I can't count the number of times, during the weeks I recently spent in the Shiite cities, towns and neighborhoods of Iraq, that I was told the story of Saddam Hussein murdering Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr -- only to find that in the telling, Sadr's killing became conflated with the murder of Imam Ali more than a millennium earlier.
Iraqi Shiite clerics are quick to acknowledge -- some would say exploit -- this sense of Shiite victimization, which has existed for much of the modern history of Iraq. The Ottomans, who ruled Iraq before it was Iraq, were Sunnis, and they discriminated against the Shiites almost as a matter of course. When the British arrived in 1915, matters did not change. Six years later, they installed a member of the Sunni Hashemite family brought from outside Iraq as the country's king. When the Baath Party seized power definitively in 1968, it had heavy Shiite support. But once again, Shiite hopes were soon dashed, as Saddam Hussein proved to be even more partisan toward the Sunni, and more violently repressive of the Shiites, than any of his predecessors.
As a result, the Iraqi Shiite political culture is a mixture of grievance and thwarted patriotism. The son of and spokesman for the current ayatollah Hakim summarized the Shiite plaint for me when we spoke in Najaf: ''The Iraqi Shiites are the majority here. But they were suffering in previous periods of Iraqi history -- since the foundation of the new Iraqi state, in fact. Their rights were never respected. When the Baath Party came to power in 1968, their suffering became a tragedy. We Shiites faced torture, killing and exclusion from the real life of Iraq. Even religion was repressed.''
The Shiites nonetheless remained loyal throughout much of the 20th century to an Iraqi state that showed little loyalty to them. They led the rebellion against the British in 1920, and, 60 years later, provided most of the manpower in Iraq's war with Iran -- a war that Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran wrongly assumed would be won because Iraqi Shiites would not fight fellow Shiites from Iran in defense of a Sunni-dominated regime in Baghdad. Some Shiites finally rose up against Saddam Hussein in 1991, in the aftermath of the gulf war, convinced they were receiving signals, if not promises, of military support from the Americans who had just driven the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. Instead, American support never materialized, and tens of thousands of Shiites were slaughtered by Hussein's troops.
Once Saddam Hussein was overthrown, it was a foregone conclusion that Sunni dominance of Iraq would end. It soon became clear that the Iraqi Shiite religious leadership had not only survived Hussein's repression with its morale and cohesion intact, but had also quickly established itself as one of the principal forces of order and patronage in post-Baathist Iraq. The failure of American forces to stop the systematic looting in the week after the fall of Baghdad left a vacuum that was filled by hastily improvised militias organized by the Shiite religious council, the Hawza. (It was men from the Hawza who protected Baghdad's hospitals at a time when U.S. commanders were reluctant to commit troops to them.) The failure to quell looting permanently diminished the U.S. in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis; the fact that it was young Shiite men who succeeded in driving the looters away and that Shiite clerics were able to persuade the looters to return what they stole, including works of art from the Iraqi National Museum, increased the prestige of the Shiite leaders among their own people.
American plans for a transition from occupation to Iraqi sovereignty always assumed the approval, or at least the acquiescence, of the Iraqi Shiite religious hierarchy. In the first months after the fall of Hussein, this seemed to be what was taking place. But recent events have proved otherwise. The Shiite clerics have mobilized mass demonstrations against the American plan, serving notice that their wishes can never again be ignored in Iraq.
The Sunni hegemony that began with the Ottoman occupation in the 16th century ended with the American occupation at the beginning of the 21st century. But there is an unanswered question -- the central question facing the U.S. occupation, the United Nations and all Iraqis: What will take its place? Another, more pointed way of putting it is: What do the Shiites ultimately want?
For a nonbeliever, visiting Najaf or Kufa can be a disorienting experience. Near the entry to Najaf, there is a picture of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr and the legend, ''Welcome to the vastness of allegiance.'' On days of atonement, busloads of young Iraqi men arrive from the surrounding countryside or from Sadr City, the Baghdad suburb three hours north where some two million Shiites live in desperate poverty. The pilgrims come to pray and to listen to their revered imams, and also to flagellate themselves before the great mosques of these towns -- something that was forbidden under the old regime. In a sense, they come to show one another, and Iraq, their strength. ''We are performing the revolution of Imam Ali,'' one told me.
For centuries, Najaf and Karbala were among the principal places of pilgrimage for pious Shiites. They were also the places for funerals. Religious injunctions encouraged the faithful to bury their dead in these cities' vast cemeteries. Iraqis call it the ''coffin trade,'' and it has gone on for centuries, to the point that Najaf today really is as much a city of the dead as of the living. Three hundred and sixty-five days a year, there is a constant movement of coffins in and out of the mosques, some accompanied by vast motorcade corteges, others by a few elderly men barely able to carry the casket through the mosque entrance. You see the cars, coffins strapped on top, leaving Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad for the south, and in Najaf, you see buses taking mourners back to these same Baghdad neighborhoods, the most popular destination being Sadr City.
At every major Shiite shrine, elderly pilgrims -- not only Iraqis but now, with Hussein gone, large numbers of Iranians too -- are being fleeced by trinket salesmen, as ubiquitous in the Shiite holy cities as they are in Lourdes. Entering one mosque, my interpreter whispered to me, ''Watch out for your wallet.''
But for all their court-of-miracles aspect, the shrine cities are places of worship, of study, of learned disputation. All the important ayatollahs teach, and there are always supplicants and other clerics present, sipping the tea that is invariably served by some member of the cleric's staff, all waiting for a few words with the sage. Despite the simmering anti-American feeling that pervades the Shiite heartland and the courts of these clerics, the revival of Najaf and Karbala is one of the great accomplishments of the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Even as resolute an anti-American as Moqtadah al-Sadr, the son of the martyred Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, admits as much. One morning in late December outside the mosque in Kufa where Sadr preaches, I watched as waves of his militia passed by, beating their breasts and chanting promises to protect Moqtadah with their lives. But even so, during Friday prayers, I heard him admonish his congregants not to forget what a great event Hussein's ouster had been -- to celebrate, not mourn, Saddam's recent capture by the Americans. That Sadr felt the need to do so perhaps reveals something about the mood of ordinary Shiites; resentment against the U.S. occupation is by no means restricted to Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle. In Kufa, and also in Karbala and especially in Najaf, the quiet toleration of the occupation seems to be over. With the Baath Party destroyed and Hussein captured, the Shiites are restless for power.
In Saddam Hussein's time, Najaf was a much quieter place. There were some Iranian pilgrims, to be sure, but relations with Tehran were frozen. And what money the Shiite holy cities earned from pilgrimages was mostly confiscated by the Baathist regime. As a result, even the center of Najaf is far poorer than it should be. There are open sewers near the offices of many of the most important clerics. Thanks to the fall of Hussein, local merchants tell you happily, this will soon change. Yet they mostly revile the American occupation and insist that if called upon to resist it by their ayatollahs, they will do so. ''We will be like Imam Hussein fighting the fight for right and justice,'' one shopkeeper said. ''We will martyr ourselves with him as our guide.''
Coalition troops keep a very low profile in Najaf. Mostly it is Iraqi police and armed men connected to the mosques who ensure some semblance of order. The mood, however, is not one of uneasiness but of elation. Talk to any Iraqi Shiite on the street, and the sense of relief, vindication and, above all, religious possibility is overwhelming. ''Finally I can breathe,'' one young religious student told me. ''We can have our own Shiite imams -- real imams, not the official imams Saddam made us listen to.''
It would be impertinent to deny the religious aspect of this relief and pride. But there is also a political dimension. For most Shiites there is the very real sense that, as a community, they barely made it through Saddam Hussein's regime intact. In the wake of the failed Shiite uprising of 1991, Hussein turned much of southern Iraq into a Shiite graveyard. Its deserts and its farmlands hold the corpses of the tens of thousands of Shiites murdered by Hussein's security forces. Almost every Iraqi, and certainly every Shiite, seems to believe that the United States encouraged them to rise against Saddam Hussein. The fact that the Americans did nothing to help causes many Shiites to feel great enmity for the United States. For most Iraqi Shiites, the betrayal of 1991 is a scar that even the overthrow of Saddam Hussein cannot heal.
Moderate voices, including some Iraqi exiles who lobbied hard for the American invasion, will tell you that it was the American decision not simply to liberate Iraq but to declare Iraq an occupied country that has turned the Shiites against the United States. Some radical clerics agree. Moqtadah al-Sadr's deputy in Najaf told me: ''The Americans say they're sorry about 1991, and that now they're liberators. At the beginning, in early April, that was very good. But when they declared an occupation, everything changed in our minds.
''Why should we believe the Americans have changed since 1991, when they showed no concern over our fate, when, after tantalizing us, they stood by as we were tortured?'' he continued. ''It is the same people, Cheney, Bush's son, the Zionist Wolfowitz,'' he said, referring to Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary. ''It is not our liberation they want; it is to strengthen Israel and to fight Islam everywhere in the world. We think you are crusaders, not liberators. If you were liberators, you would give us free elections, not the fake ones to put Ahmad Chalabi in power that the Americans want. That is what Moqtadah al-Sadr told Sergio Vieira de Mello'' -- the U.N. special representative killed when a truck bomb blew up the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad last August -- ''when he came to Najaf. And that is what we believe.''
The highest Shiite authority in Iraq is the reclusive Iranian-born grand ayatollah, Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani. It was Sistani, who lives in Najaf, who called for the mass demonstrations of Shiites last month in Basra and Baghdad demanding that the American authorities revoke their plans for indirect Iraqi elections through regional caucuses. Sistani and Moqtadah al-Sadr are considered opponents, rivals for the support of Iraqi Shiites, but in fact the marches represented the views of the entire Shiite religious establishment, radical and conservative alike. The marchers chanted: ''No, no to America! Yes, yes to Sistani!'' and ''Colonialism is not liberty.'' One of Sistani's honorifics is ''marjah,'' or ''the object of emulation''; another chant went, ''The object of emulation is the true Iraqi democracy.''
When Sistani calls for a direct election, as opposed to the American plan for an indirect voting system based on regional caucuses, what resonates with ordinary Iraqis is their deep skepticism about American motives and their deep resentment of the American occupation. If ''one man, one vote'' is good enough for the Americans, why isn't it good enough for Iraqis?
The demonstrations in January finally captured Washington's attention, prompting L. Paul Bremer III, administrator of the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority, or C.P.A., to make an emergency trip to Washington and to the U.N. But the truth is that Iraqi Shiites were voicing these concerns almost from the beginning of the occupation. The difference is that until last month, the C.P.A. appears to have believed that it could ignore the wishes of Sistani and his fellow clerics in Najaf. Indeed, in mid-November the C.P.A. and the Iraqi Governing Council signed a deal providing for indirect elections, even though it was clear that Sistani was not going to alter his preference for direct elections.
The Najaf clerics, Sistani in particular, have often been underestimated by outsiders. American observers have compared Sistani to the pope, calling him a man with virtually limitless spiritual authority but little grass-roots organization. Along the same lines, the C.P.A. apparently decided that his assent to their transition plan, while valuable and desirable, would not be essential. Subsequent events have proved this view far too sanguine. The demonstrations have shown that Sistani has enormous support in worldly matters too, as well as the capacity, in a relatively short period of time, to bring his loyalists into the streets.
In a sense, the elections are only the tip of the iceberg. By doing the one thing American officials had feared all along -- deploying the Shiite masses in the streets in anti-American protests -- Sistani threatens to derail the transition from U.S. occupation to Iraqi sovereignty. The consequences for the future of Iraq, not to mention for the U.S. presidential elections, could be enormous.
The reality driving the fear of a new Shiite mobilization is first and foremost a matter of numbers. While it is impossible to establish a reliable ethnic and sectarian breakdown of the Iraqi population, no one believes that the Shiite proportion is less than 60 percent, and some Shiites put the number higher. Whatever the actual figure, it is large enough to ensure that the views of Iraq's Shiite population can no longer be ignored or put down by force. Soon after the fall of Baghdad last spring, a U.S. official put the matter to me starkly: ''If we alienate the Shiites, we've lost the ballgame. The Kurds owe us, and we're the best deal they'll ever see. We can fight the Sunnis. But we can't fight the Shiites, not if they organize against us. There are too many of them.''
In the first months of the occupation, Ayatollah Sistani did nothing to actively oppose the presence of the Americans. To the contrary, from the moment the United States and its coalition partners took control of Iraq, the senior Shiite clergy made it clear that it welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. While not going so far as to urge his followers to welcome the occupation as well -- indeed, Sistani has declared that any conversation between an Iraqi and an American should end with the question, ''When are you leaving Iraq?'' -- the grand ayatollah counseled cooperation with U.S. forces, urged his followers to eschew violence and instructed them to bide their time.
This ''moderate'' view was immediately controversial in some Shiite circles and was opposed outright by radical younger Shiite clerics like Moqtadah al-Sadr, whose power is strongest among the disenfranchised slum population of Baghdad and in Basra and other southern Iraqi cities. Sistani's moderation also enraged both Hussein loyalists and Sunni Islamists, including the Wahhabist guerrillas who have been fighting the Americans in Iraq. As a result, the Shiite establishment has become a frequent target of attacks, the deadliest of which was the massive car bombing in August that killed Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim.
Sistani has little of the charismatic authority of his predecessors, and he was criticized after the war by some Iraqis for having kept a low profile during Saddam Hussein's rule. Cautious under Hussein, Sistani was equally cautious, at first, under the Americans. For that reason, outside observers are somewhat puzzled by Sistani's stiff objection to the U.S. transition plan and his call for Shiites to take to the streets in support of direct elections. ''I'm surprised,'' says Prof. Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, a leading scholar of contemporary Iraq. ''Once you call for mass demonstrations, you've unleashed something you may not be able to control. Sistani clearly doesn't want turmoil, and yet by doing what he's done, that's precisely what he's risking.''
If Sistani decides that he is willing to risk turmoil and calls for further demonstrations, there is little doubt that many Iraqis will follow him. His photograph is ubiquitous in shop windows throughout the Shiite heartland and also in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhoods. In one commercial street in Karrada, a middle-class Baghdad neighborhood, shopkeeper after shopkeeper told me of their devotion to Sistani. ''He is our leader,'' one man said. ''We will follow him until our deaths.'' Another told me, ''If the marjah'' -- the object of emulation -- ''asks us to fight the Americans, we will do so immediately, happily, to the last drop of our blood.'' The man spoke with such enthusiasm, I assumed he considered this fight to be both inevitable and imminent. But when I asked him whether he thought the grand ayatollah would in fact call on him to resist the American occupiers, he shook his head emphatically. ''Absolutely not,'' he said. ''We Shiites will wait until June'' -- when the C.P.A. is scheduled to hand over authority for the country to Iraqis. ''We will get our country back soon enough.''
This ability to wait is often said to accompany the Shiites' almost cultic fascination with martyrdom and suffering. This stereotype, like all stereotypes, is at best a half-truth. But in the fall of 2003, the dominant view in Shiite Iraq was that there was nothing to be gained and much to be lost by confronting the Americans directly. Whatever firebrands like Moqtadah al-Sadr might say, it was better to wait the Americans out.
There are all sorts of explanations for this. One, put to me by Joseph Wilson IV, former U.S. charge d'affaires in Baghdad, was that as long as Americans were killing Sunnis, the Shiites had no reason not to sit on the sidelines. It was the Sunnis, after all, who had long stood in the way of Shiite rights and Shiite power in Iraq, and by a certain logic, anything that weakened the Sunnis strengthened the Shiites. The Shiites also realize that the Americans are eager to leave as soon as possible -- and to leave behind a ''democracy'' of one kind or another, which cannot help increasing the power of the majority. Having been excluded from power for so long, the Shiite leadership does not want, at the 11th hour, to ruin its chances of finally acquiring its rightful role in Iraq. ''We must wait,'' one cleric in Najaf told me. And, almost ruefully, he added, ''We in the Shiite majority of this country have been waiting to play our rightful role in Iraq since the death of Imam Hussein'' -- some 1,300 years ago. ''Having done that, we can certainly wait another six months.''
Not long after talking with that cleric, I met an aide to Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, a close associate of Sistani's, and asked him what he thought of that proposition -- that the Shiites had been waiting to remake Iraq since the death of Imam Hussein in 680. He grew indignant. ''What do you mean, Imam Hussein?'' he replied. ''We have been waiting since the murder of Imam Ali'' -- 19 years before Imam Hussein was killed -- ''to begin a just Iraq!''
Prof. Wamid Nazmi, a distinguished secular Sunni scholar in Baghdad, simply shook his head when I told him the story of the Shiites' 1,300-year-long wait. ''Arabs have not yet made their peace with history,'' he said. ''But it is not a question of Sunni or Shiite.'' On that subject, Nazmi, like many scholarly Iraqis I met, was at pains to insist that the differences between the two sects of Islam should not be exaggerated. ''Yes, there are Sunnis and Shiites here,'' he said wearily, ''but they worship the same god, revere the same prophet, read the same holy book.'' Having said that, he readily conceded that ''nowadays in Iraq, the Shiites have become more aware of themselves as a group. Saddam Hussein's opposition to them, his perception during the Iran-Iraq war that they were some sort of fifth column, has made them less accommodating with the Sunnis than they were before.''
Nazmi concluded that the Shiite clerics are likely to grow steadily more powerful. The seeming inevitability of this is what makes the decision of Ayatollah Sistani and his colleagues to order their followers into the streets very difficult to understand. In a certain sense, it seems almost unnecessary. In the summer and fall of 2003, the senior clerics had been firm in their rejection of Moqtadah al-Sadr's demands for an Islamic state led by clerics. As one Iraqi journalist with close links to the Shiite hierarchy in Najaf put it to me in December: ''The grand ayatollahs are all opposed to Moqtadah's demands. They think that it is stupid to confront the coalition. And they fear that it will lead to a war among the Shiites -- the thing that they fear most in the world.'' Sistani and his colleagues were able to more or less neutralize Moqtadah -- even Moqtadah's own principal aide told me in Najaf that Moqtadah had made ''mistakes'' that his enemies had ''taken advantage of'' -- and at the end of the year, they seemed to be in a position to influence the course of the future Iraqi state, regardless of the type of election held.
Yet Sistani's call for demonstrations and the rhetoric of those demonstrations were anything but moderate. The crowd shouted slogans like ''One man, one vote'' and ''No, no to appointment,'' and demonstrators and speakers insisted that they would never accept an American ''colonialist'' state.
In my experience, American officials, not to mention ordinary American soldiers, reject the idea that they are genuinely disliked in Iraq, except, of course, in the Sunni Triangle. And yet when I spoke to Ayatollah Najafi, his dislike for the United States, like that of most Shiite clerics I met, was palpable. The entry of Sistani and the rest of the Najaf clerical hierarchy into the fray has almost certainly changed the rules of the game in Iraq, not just in terms of the actual decision on what sort of election will be held, but in terms of Iraq's entire post-Saddam Hussein future. Insurgents can harass and kill U.S. forces, but they are doing little to shift power their way in Iraq. With the demonstrations, Sistani managed to fundamentally alter the Iraqi political equation without one of his followers firing a shot. Moqtadah al-Sadr and his followers now have little choice but to fall in line, and Sistani is securing for his Shiite power base greater representation for its interests and its vision of how Iraq should be governed when the nation regains its independence, as early as next summer.
So is this Shiite flexing of political muscle the harbinger of a religious, Shiite-dominated Iraqi state to come? As Ayatollah Najafi put it: ''An Islamic state is a wish for us. It will not be achieved until the foreign occupiers stop using Iraqis and stop trying to control Iraqi politics.'' Moqtadah al-Sadr has been calling for an Islamic state, with the vocal support of his followers in the Shiite slums. And the demonstrators in the streets of Basra last month who cried out that Sistani was Iraqi democracy personified were calling for an Islamic state, too.
But the clerics have not demanded the kind of position in postwar Iraq that their fellow ayatollahs occupy in Iran. The Iraqi Shiite hierarchy has largely rejected, and continues to reject, the Khomeinist view that clerics should rule. Even at the Hawza office in Baghdad, where the political line is closer to Moqtadah al-Sadr than to Sistani, the editor of the Hawza's newspaper told me that ''during the 70's and 80's, Iraqi Shiites followed the example of Iran. But after the results of the Islamic revolution in Iran and Saddam's humiliation of the Shiites in Iraq, we . . . look at Iran with fear and disappointment. We have to find our own way.''
Even if the clerics wanted to emulate Iran, and they don't, Iraq's demographic and historical realities would probably doom any such effort to failure. Although it is true that the Shiites are in the majority, Iraq is not Iran, which is about 90 percent Shiite. The history of Shiism in each country is quite different, as well. Yitzhak Nakash, the author of the definitive ''Shi'is of Iraq,'' points out that most of Iraq's Shiites are relatively recent converts. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Iraq -- or the areas that the British would, in the 1920's, cobble together into Iraq -- was majority Sunni, and Shiism was largely confined to urban areas like Najaf and Karbala. Shiism was at that time viewed as a foreign implant -- a charge that Saddam Hussein would later revive and use as his justification for repressing the Shiites and then for his campaign of mass murder against them after the gulf war.
Because of all this, Shiism simply cannot be the organizing principle of the state in Iraq that it has been in Iran for the past quarter century. And as Nakash points out, it is also the case that the Shiite world seemed, until recently, to have finished its revolutionary phase. ''The Shiites, above all in Iraq, have seemed post-revolutionary,'' Nakash told me. ''It is the Sunni world where revolutionary ambitions have real popular or clerical support.''
Not everyone in Iraq is convinced that the clerics will stay out of politics. In Baghdad I spoke at length to one of the country's leading secular liberal thinkers, Isam al-Khafaji, a social scientist. While he remains guardedly optimistic about Iraq's future, he says he fears that ''unknowingly, we are sliding into the principle of Iranian-style guidance.'' Few if any of the political parties, he points out, take a position without consulting the Shiite religious authorities. In December, to give but one example, the Iraqi Governing Council voted to rescind longstanding Iraqi civil law. In this scheme, an individual's rights would be administered by clerics from that individual's respective religious community. Thus, a Shiite woman would have her laws determined by the imam, an Iraqi Christian's by a priest and so on. It is a troubling decree for those desiring a secular democracy in Iraq, made all the more troubling by the fact that women's rights are often cited by the Bush administration as one of its prime commitments in Iraq.
As Khafaji puts it, ''When society becomes more conservative, the first victims are women.'' Obviously, what most Westerners would view as the assault on the rights of women is scarcely restricted to post-Saddam Iraq. Indeed, you see far fewer head scarves among the female students at the University of Baghdad than you do at universities in Jordan or Egypt. Social conservativism is sweeping the Islamic world -- above all where the status of women is concerned. Nonetheless, in Iraq there is little doubt that the impetus for these changes comes largely from the Shiite religious authorities.
Wearing a head scarf may be an individual choice, but the prohibition of alcohol, which is taking hold in Iraq, above all in Shiite areas, is not. In Basra, a city now virtually alcohol-free, shadowy Shiite extremist groups like the 15th of Shabaan movement, which originated during the Shiite uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991, have mounted a concerted campaign of terror against Christian liquor-store owners, driving many out of business. Fifteenth of Shabaan and other militant groups have also been accused by Sunni tribal leaders in southern Iraq of trying to drive Sunni property owners from their land. A protest sent to Paul Bremer speaks of ''ethnic cleansing'' and lists the names of some 40 people whom the militants have supposedly expelled or kidnapped.
Baghdad remains an anomaly -- a place where, for the moment, anyway, secularism is still alive and well in the schools and streets and nightspots. But in all of the Shiite south and even in Baghdad's Sadr City, a slow-motion Islamicization is steadily gathering strength. It is difficult to see how any transitional government, even one shaped by the Iraqi Governing Council and the C.P.A., could stop this. The fact is that the Shiites are pushing on what may well be an open door. No secular Iraqi party -- not the Communists who once led the fight against Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, and not the Iraqi National Congress -- seems to be able to garner significant popular support among Iraqis. The Sunnis have yet to deal with what will inevitably be a reduced role in the new Iraq. The Kurds are concerned only with their self-determination, not with taking power nationally. If the Shiites have taken center stage, they have done so by default.
''You can get rid of Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party,'' says
Professor Cole of the University of Michigan. ''But you can't get rid
of the facts on the ground. And the Shiites are the most important of
David Rieff, a contributing writer, has reported extensively from Iraq for the magazine.