Global Policy Forum

Testing Ground


In the Shiite South, Islamists and Secularists Struggle Over Iraq's Future.

By George Packer

New Yorker
February 21, 2005

In the southern Iraqi city of Basra, three days before the country's recent national elections, Youssef al-Emara, a man in his mid-fifties, visited the office of Majid al-Sary, a forty-two-year-old official in the Ministry of Defense. Emara, who had just been appointed to the same ministry, had a difficult political problem that he wanted Sary's help in resolving. He didn't realize that he and the man behind the desk were old acquaintances, with a certain shared history, until Sary reminded him. They then spent several hours talking over the unhappy past.

In 1982, in the second year of the twentieth century's longest conventional war, both men were young officers in the Iraqi Army—Emara was a thirty-three-year-old major, Sary a twenty-year-old lieutenant—who slipped separately across the border and defected to Iraq's enemy, Iran. They were from Basra and, like most people in southern Iraq, they were Shiites. Otherwise, they could not have been more different. Emara, bearded, stocky, and square-headed, with the wary manner of a man who has long been involved in underground politics, is a strict Muslim, who bears a prayer bruise in the middle of his forehead. His intention in defecting was to fight to spread Iran's Islamic revolution to his own country. Sary, for his part, keeps his cleft chin clean-shaven; he is a dapper dresser who laughs and cries easily. As a young man, he liked to drink and chase women. Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, was then a cosmopolitan port with spice shops owned by South Asian merchants and night clubs with Egyptian bartenders and Kuwaiti patrons; it had been a congenial place for him, until the war. Sary fled Iraq to escape the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime and the pointless war it had launched.

Emara and Sary first met in an Iranian town east of Tehran, where they and other Iraqi defectors decided to form an opposition group. But they couldn't agree whether to call it the Free Officers Movement or, as Emara wanted, the Free Islamic Officers Movement. In the end, Emara's faction prevailed, and Sary was pushed out of the organization, which came under the control of Iran's Revolutionary Guard and was renamed the Badr Brigade, after a famous battle in 624 A.D., when the Prophet and his faithful supporters, though vastly outnumbered, defeated the Meccan Army.

Emara became Badr's artillery commander. The militia expanded with the recruitment of prisoners of war: Iran, which eventually held up to seventy thousand Iraqis, pressured the Shiites whom they captured to join their Persian brothers against the apostate tyrant who was killing their religious leaders in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Remarkably few Iraqi Shiites were willing to place sectarian belief or self-interest ahead of national loyalty, even though those who refused faced years of squalid confinement. Those Iraqis who did reverse their allegiance were led into combat, in the marshes north of Basra, by Emara. The Badr Brigade earned a reputation for ferocity, and Emara felt no compunction about killing fellow-Iraqis.

Sary quickly found that he liked revolutionary Iran no better than fascist Iraq, and he moved on to Pakistan. In 1985, the Pakistani intelligence service arrested him and turned him over to Iraq. Sary spent two years in Abu Ghraib prison, outside Baghdad, and in other prisons that he said were even worse. He was in solitary confinement for eighteen months; after being sentenced to death, he watched friends taken away for execution while he awaited the same fate. Instead, in 1987, Saddam, who was losing the war and was short of manpower, issued a general-release order, and Sary found himself once again a soldier in the Iraqi Army. He served out the war in Basra with an air-defense unit. By then Basra was on the front lines; Iranian troops, just seven miles away, constantly shelled the city from across the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Saddam had launched the war to seize the waterway and to prevent Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran's leader, from inspiring Iraq's oppressed Shiite majority to rise up and create the Islamic Republic of Iraq. But when the Iran-Iraq War ended, in 1988, after eight years and more than a million casualties, the border remained exactly where it had been in 1980: in the middle of the waterway. "Nobody won," Emara said. "Ask Saddam what it was for."

The next war came to Basra in 1991, when the American-led coalition expelled Saddam's forces from Kuwait. Sary had been sitting in his house for three years, reading history and poetry; he was afraid to leave, and his record made him unemployable. On the morning of March 2nd, Sary's cousin arrived with the news that, during the night, in al-Hayaniya, the vast slum west of downtown, young men, using weapons they had bought from soldiers of the routed Iraqi Army, had taken over a police station and attacked Baath Party offices. Women were in the streets shouting, "Saddam is falling!" Sary was swept up in the spontaneous uprising. He had nothing to lose and, suddenly, nothing to fear. "It wasn't a decision," he said. "It was like a historical movement for me. I heard that the people started to move against the regime and I moved myself. I attacked the intelligence building." Sary called the Iraqi intifada "ten days of happiness."

On the fourth day of the revolt, which had spread to other cities, two men in black suits appeared before a crowd outside a mosque in the Temimiya district. They had arrived in a Toyota Land Cruiser with license plates from Tehran. Speaking in accents of the Iranian border region, they urged local people to form checkpoints around the city and stop the advance of Republican Guard soldiers that Saddam had sent to quell the rebellion. They also instructed the women of Basra to wear full-length black abayas. Around the same time, an intelligence cell of the Badr Brigade was sent across the border by the Shiite exile opposition in Tehran, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (sciri), to organize the chaotic uprising in Basra. Pictures of sciri's religious leader, Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, appeared around Basra, along with images of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Seven days after the uprising began, as the Republican Guard approached the city center, Sary was navigating through pitched battles in the streets when he spotted a familiar face: that of Youssef al-Emara, who was on a reconnaissance mission to prepare for two hundred Badr fighters to attack Basra's main square and navy yard. Sary was suspicious of the Badr Brigade and worried that the intifada, which had begun as a popular movement without a sectarian cast—one of its first martyrs, he said, was a Sunni from Ramadi—would be overtaken by religious Shiites under Iranian control. Still, the sight of Emara, after almost a decade, was welcome. "We were in a war," Sary said. "We needed any help." Emara was too far away for Sary to speak with him, but Sary was led to believe that Emara and other Badr members would supply the local fighters with Katyusha rocket launchers. They never materialized.

In fact, a Badr commander ordered Emara to withdraw his men from Basra and return to Tehran. He was told that Iraqi Army helicopters were hitting the city with napalm. "I thought, Why should we go back if only a few of our members were targeted? The situation was favorable," Emara recalled. "When I said that to my leader, I found that he didn't care, he was cold. I've never understood it to this day." Sary, however, saw the hand of Iran in Badr's retreat, and a leading sciri official in Baghdad, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, confirmed this, saying that the government in Tehran feared that Saddam was setting a trap for Iran's proxies.

On the tenth day, Emara and the Badr cell withdrew, and, according to a leader of the intifada, the Iranian Army temporarily blocked Saddam's Iraqi opponents from crossing the border. A few hundred local Iraqis remained in Basra to resist the Republican Guard, in what amounted to a suicide mission. Men were hanged from the gun barrels of tanks; others were machine-gunned to death, their bodies bulldozed into mass graves. The ceasefire between the United States and Iraq had permitted Saddam to resume using helicopter gunships, and they strafed fleeing civilians. Tens of thousands of Iraqis across the south were slaughtered. Republican Guard tanks were painted with the mocking motto "After today, no more Shiites."

On March 17th, Sary escaped into Kuwait, and eventually arrived at an American prison camp in Saudi Arabia. From there he went into exile in Sweden, where he wrote a book about the intifada, "Death Coming from the West." The title referred to western Iraq, the Sunni Arab heartland that was home to the Republican Guard leaders. But there was a larger implication. Like everyone in Basra who told me the story of the intifada, Sary felt betrayed by America as well as by Iran. Two weeks before the uprising, President George H. W. Bush had told Iraqis to overthrow Saddam; flyers dropped by American planes had urged the same thing. In the first days of the revolt, dissident Iraqis thought that the American military was on their side. U.S. soldiers positioned south of Basra had initially provided medical aid and food to people leaving Basra. Moreover, American planes had attacked Iraqi tanks. Yet, according to the dissidents I spoke with, the U.S. suddenly stopped providing support. "Bush told us to uprise," an Iraqi said at the time. "When we uprose, he went fishing." A Basrawi who had fled to the Kuwaiti border asked American officers there, "Can you help the people dying?" An officer answered, "We are military—there's nothing we can do. This is politics."

Bitterness over the events of 1991 remains strong in Basra. The certificate of membership of a veterans' group asserts that the bearer "is one of the participants in the intifada, and he participated with all he owns and sacrificed his material goods and his soul to save our city, even to the last moment when the intifada ended, when the evil powers united, the Americans and the Baathists." This resentment helps to explain the wariness with which the Shiites, more impoverished and disenfranchised than ever, greeted the American invasion in 2003. To many, the defeat of Saddam came twelve years too late.

Emara and Sary both returned to Basra after Saddam's fall, but, just as they had tried to push the intifada in separate directions, they came back from Tehran and Stockholm with sharply different visions of a new Iraq—one Islamist, one secular. After years of intense suffering, Basra has become a testing ground for the future of Shiite political power in Iraq. And Emara and Sary, the former rebels, have become middle-aged men in pin-striped suits. The Badr Brigade, recently renamed the Badr Organization, now operates freely in Basra—the provisional governor is a member—and Emara is one of its top officials. Last month, he was also appointed to the Defense Ministry, where Sary is an official.

During their meeting before the elections, Emara and Sary sat down in Sary's office, under a wall plaque commemorating the intifada. Its imagery emphasized the revolt's national character: a Sumerian sun, an Arab sword, a Kurdish dagger, and symbols of workers and peasants. After they finished reminiscing, Emara got to the point. He wanted Sary to put a stop to the ministry's accusations of Iranian interference in the elections. The Iraqi Shiite religious parties were likely to come to power after the vote, Emara said, adding that if Sary wanted to keep his position it would be in his interest to coí¶perate. But Basra's experience since the fall of Saddam had left Sary deeply suspicious of the Islamist parties. "These are the realities," Sary said to Emara. "We're not making it up. Iran is interfering." And, as an Iraqi patriot, he was unwilling to forge alliances with people who served as proxies for Iran. "We're looking at the parties from Iran," he said after ushering Emara out of his office. "The good Iraqis we take. The others we leave."

The flatness of Basra's light tells you that the Persian Gulf is only an hour away. The water table in this marshy region is so high that Basra depends on canals for drainage. These days, the canals are blocked, and on one winter day a hard rain submerged whole neighborhoods under several feet of water and sewage; a week later, the flooding ebbed, turning the streets to mud and the city into a picture of soggy neglect. Clay houses that were illegally built jostle for space amid the garbage heaps of the Shiite flats; they provide shelter to families that were driven from the marshes drained by Saddam after 1991. The city center is choked with decaying shops and the ruins of concrete government buildings that were hit by American air strikes during the invasion. Near the Ashar mosque, an Islamic group has taken over an amusement park with a derelict Ferris wheel and a sun-bleached tyrannosaurus. Looted government buildings overlook the banks of the Shatt al-Arab. Downstream, toward the Gulf, is a domed palace complex that Saddam built and allegedly visited only once. It is now occupied by the British and American regional embassies. On a breezy evening in January, I visited the Corniche, the street that runs along the waterway. Egrets flew above rusting smugglers' trawlers, which floated alongside the wreckage of an Iraqi Navy pilot boat. The moon was rising over the palm trees on the far bank—Iran was hidden a few miles beyond them—and it was almost possible to imagine Basra as the rich center of international trade that it once was.

After the 2003 invasion, more than a hundred thousand Iraqi Shiites who, during Saddam's regime, had fled to Iran or were expelled returned to southern Iraq. With them came the Islamist political parties that had represented the Shiite opposition in exile: sciri and its armed wing, the Badr Organization; Dawa, the oldest Shiite party, whose cadres inside Iraq had been almost exterminated in the nineteen-seventies and eighties; and a host of smaller parties with names like Revenge of God—some of which are armed subsidiaries of Iranian intelligence, people in Basra told me.

The religious parties occupied public buildings in Basra, installed their militias, and organized faster than any of the local groups, except for the mostly impoverished, violent followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical scion of Iraq's leading Shiite clerical family. The religious parties quickly established contact with the British military, the occupying force in Basra. They filled the new police force with their members, and took control of the provincial government. "The Iran-backed parties had a strategic vision, which was more or less to take over the south politically, coí¶perate with the coalition, enhance their religious position in Najaf, and then be in a position to get national power," a British official told me. "I think they've succeeded without wide support, which is why they've overstretched themselves. Not that many people in the south support the parties."

Since returning from Iran, the religious parties have imposed their strict ideology on Basra, alienating many residents in the process. Upon arrival, armed militias began assassinating Baathists, harassing women who dared to forgo the veil, and forcibly shutting down Basra's DVD emporiums and Christian-owned liquor shops. Zealous university professors demanded that women and men sit apart from each other in classes, and a music-school student told me that he could now study only theory. (Some Islamists consider music immoral.) This coercive social code sat uneasily on the worldly educated classes of Basra, though the city had grown increasingly conservative under the weight of war, sanctions, and the influence of Iran. The provincial government is widely viewed as incompetent and corrupt; oil products are reportedly being smuggled to floating markets in the Gulf. With vast oil reserves, date-palm plantations, and a strategically located port, Basra, long neglected by Baghdad, could conceivably become the engine of an economic boom in Iraq. In the governor's office, I met a representative of a Kuwaiti firm with plans for a sixty-eight-story office tower and a five-and-a-half-billion-dollar investment. For now, violence and bad government stand in the way.

The British military, schooled in counterinsurgency tactics in Northern Ireland, has taken a low-profile approach to the occupation of Basra. Last August, during the uprising of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, the British essentially ceded control of the city—one reason that there is much less friction between foreign soldiers and Iraqi civilians in Basra than in areas occupied by American forces. At the same time, some locals grumble that the British are unwilling to impose order in Basra.

The question of Iran's role in Basra's political violence and religious repression is a murky one. To Sary, the answer is simple. "There is no Iranian ‘influence' in Basra," he said. "There is an indirect Iranian occupation of Basra." The Iraqi religious parties are agents of the occupation, Sary added, though even he drew distinctions between, for example, sciri and Dawa, which exert a certain independence from Tehran, and the smaller parties that act as hired guns. Iran, he said, wants to prevent the establishment of a democratic and secular nation next door; it also hopes "to put the American military forces inside the cloud of the Iraqi mess, so they cannot hit Iran by military force." Several people in Basra claimed that the old governor's residence, on the Corniche, is now occupied by Iranian intelligence agents. According to one Western official, suitcases of cash are constantly ferried across what barely functions as an international border. Still, no one seems to know who these Iranians are. Majid Moussa, a farmer, who attended a voter-education meeting at Basra University, told me, "They don't come here as Iranians waving a flag."

The leaders of the religious parties, mindful of the potent force of Iraqi nationalism and the ancient rivalry between Arabs and Persians, deny any foreign connection. "We give the Islamic Republic of Iran, as a government and a people, all our respect, because they gave us so much help and they accommodated a large number of immigrants," Salah al-Battat, sciri's stone-faced local representative, told me in his incense-filled meeting room. "But we will not accept for them to put themselves in our internal business, because we do not need anyone else's help. We aren't underage." British officials, meanwhile, take the view that Iran has a legitimate interest in Iraq: the establishment of a stable, friendly neighbor. Simon Collis, the British consul-general in Basra, said of the local religious parties, "These organizations do have links with Iran. Are they Iranian-owned? I don't think so. If you wanted to fight the tyranny in the eighties and nineties, Iran was the address. It's not obvious to me that some mullah in Iran can jerk their chain and make them jump."

In recent months, members of the religious parties have tried to take control of Basra's civic institutions—its schools, hospitals, and security forces. The north campus of Basra University fell under the sway of Sadr's militia, and the south campus went to another religious group, the Fadilah Party. The entrance to al-Sadr Teaching Hospital (formerly Saddam Teaching Hospital) on the Shatt al-Arab was plastered with Shiite religious and political images. In addition to posters of various turbaned Hakims and Sadrs, there were campaign signs promoting the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance—listed as No. 169 on the national-elections ballot—featuring a lit candle and the wise old face of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who oversaw the formation of the Shiite coalition.

Upstairs, I met Dr. Jawad al-Ali, a slight, bespectacled oncologist with unkempt gray hair falling over his eyes. A secular Shiite, he was also wise and old, but he commanded no following and had no security. The party militias, who had the run of the hospital, enforced an Islamic code on medical care (refusing, for example, to permit unveiled women to be treated) and allowed patients and their families to intimidate the hospital staff. Not long ago, a patient under Ali's care died of leukemia. Her husband confronted the doctor, claiming, "My wife died because of you." He demanded money, and when Ali refused, he said, "Doctor, I am so angry with you. I will see what to do."

Ali began wearing a pistol under his clothes, though he knew that he could never shoot anyone. The police were no help, since they, too, had been infiltrated by party militias. The chaos of the hospital was part of the wider insecurity in Basra, where it was hard to distinguish political violence and religious intolerance from ordinary crime. As a last resort, the doctor went to his tribal sheikh and paid for protection—a difficult step for an educated man to take. If anything happened to him, he was told, his tribe would avenge it. Ali mentioned the names of colleagues who had recently been killed: a hospital director, the dean of a college of pharmacy, a surgeon. As the doctor went down the list, his eyes, already magnified by thick lenses, grew wider and his voice softer. "I don't know, really, how we are staying here," he said. "I should leave, but I am so old I can't find a job. My heart is so constricted, like this"—he closed his hand into a fist—"because always I am afraid, even at my house when I return from my clinic."

Across the city, at the Maternity and Children's Hospital in the Jazaar district, Dr. Muhammad Nasir, the hospital's director, was aggressively fighting to keep the religious parties out. He had the tough, jowly face and slicked-back hair of Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark in "All the King's Men." There were no religious pictures in his hospital, only the uplifting get-out-the-vote posters of the election commission and quaint alpine-meadow scenes inside gold frames that had once contained portraits of Saddam Hussein. Last year, a religious militia had demanded the use of a brick wall to cover with political propaganda. "Come back tomorrow morning," Nasir said. That day, he knocked down the wall with a sledgehammer. A few months ago, one of the nurses was caught watching a pornographic DVD with her boyfriend, a receptionist. When Nasir ordered the receptionist transferred to another hospital, the man's friends went to the local Sadr office and reported Nasir for tearing down pictures of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Moqtada's martyred father. The militiamen confronted the doctor and demanded that he rescind the transfer order. "They said I need to be judged by a religious court in Najaf," he recalled with amusement. Nasir armed himself, hired his own hospital security force, and by sheer nerve faced down the intruders.

The hospital was now a model of order. "We need professional people who are expert at their work and they belong to Iraq only, not to any group, and they are brave people, they have brave heart," Nasir said as we walked the clean corridors and toured a new nutrition ward, which had recently been built by Save the Children with money from the U.S. Agency for International Development. He was counting on a democratic election and a strong new government to rescue Iraq from chaos. His brand of secularism was all about law and order: he wanted to practice medicine without religious interference. "We have no in-between solution," he said. "Either we will go ahead with freedom or the whole country will be destroyed. If you speak, I will speak. If you fight, I will fight. Because you have to protect yourself. And if you die you must die with honor. You must not die a coward."

A half mile down the street, outside the modest headquarters of the Fadilah Party (the name means Virtue, or Morals), someone had propped up a wide, vividly painted canvas: an old man with a white beard, standing against a flaming sky, was pushing a boatload of pilgrims across a desert-colored ocean toward the distant gold-domed shrine of Imam Ali, in Najaf. The old man was Moqtada al-Sadr's father. Fadilah's founder, Ayatollah Muhammad al-Yacoubi, claimed that Moqtada's father, before his murder at the hands of Baathist agents, had chosen him as his successor—making Yacoubi, not Moqtada, the genuine heir of hard-line Iraqi Shiism. Among the bewildering array of religious parties in Basra, Fadilah had the largest following among the pious educated classes, who wanted strict Islamic government but also independence from Iran.

Dr. Haider Mohsin, an earnest young internist, sat under a portrait of Ayatollah Yacoubi and explained Fadilah's philosophy while, in the next room, bearded, leather-jacketed male campaign workers came and went in a flurry of preí«lection activity. "The Jean-Jacques Rousseau idea, the French Revolution ideas—we think that these ideas are typical ideas for the European society," Mohsin said. "But how far it is from Iraq to the European societies is the distance from Islam to the French Revolution." Cultural imperialism, he said, was the most dangerous kind of imperialism, and Iraq needed to resist the wave of low morals and rampant individualism emanating from the West. "One of the causes that made France fall down in the Second World War was the sexual freedom," Mohsin said. He was quick to add that the Islamization of Iraq should take place by entirely democratic, constitutional means that respected the rights of religious minorities. Mohsin was equally distrustful of Iranian and American designs on Iraq; no country except Iraq, he said, could have the interests of Iraqis at heart. In Mohsin's reasoning, the elections would allow Iraq to find the perfect balance of state and mosque, with the assent of the entire population.

The opposing view was expressed most forcefully by Sary. "All the Islamic laws from the time of the Prophet until our day don't show acceptance of democracy," he said. "Show me any country where there is Islamic leadership that can accept democratic persons. Where could that happen? In Saudi Arabia? In Iran? I don't think so, no. The secular people, the Communists—they accepted democracy. I don't think the Islamic parties will accept anyone who opposes them." Sary compared the prospect of monolithic Shiite rule in Iraq with the tyranny of the Baath Party. For this reason, he said, "religion is something between man and God and should be far away from politics." Sary, who was protected by at least half a dozen National Guardsmen, added, "I'm the only one who can talk like that in Basra, and I know that, at any time, even I can be turned to smoke—because they can blow up my office."

The Arabic word for "secular" is a neologism, almaany, which comes from aalam, meaning "world." It's not often heard in public these days, for, to many Iraqis, almaany also means "godless." As Hashim al-Jazairy, the dean of the law school at Basra University, said, "This is not a good time for godlessness. God forgives, but the people don't forgive. I don't know if I'm going to Hell or Heaven, but there I can say, ‘I'm sorry, God. Please forgive me.' Here the people don't forgive."

In Basra, the confrontation between doctors and militiamen, and between technocratic and religious parties, is not just a matter of guns and posters. In the days before the elections, Basra became the stage for a passionate political struggle between competing discourses and ideas. The notion of a society based on Islamic values and religious authority, which inevitably meant a sectarian Shiite vision, was embodied by List No. 169, which people called the Sistani List. The idea of a society based on civil law, in which Iraqiness would take precedence over ethnic or religious identity, in an effort to heal the country's deep divisions, was represented by List No. 285, headed by Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister. Allawi himself inspired no great passion; people simply said that he was an educated man, a doctor, which seemed to embody a secular society. Sistani, however, was the most revered man in Iraq, even though he was an Iranian and not a candidate for any office. There were contradictions and illusions on both sides. Allawi supporters spoke of good government, though his administration was accused of being spectacularly corrupt; supporters of List No. 169 spoke of following the marjayia, the highest Shiite religious scholars, although Sistani had never formally endorsed the list he was so instrumental in forming. His fatwa said only that Muslim men and women had a religious duty to vote.

In a sense, Basra was ahead of the rest of the country. Elsewhere in Iraq, the question was whether or not to vote at all. People wondered if they dared defy Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist, who threatened to fill the streets with the blood of the electorate; they debated if an election could even be legitimate, with foreign troops on Iraqi soil. In Basra, whose population is eighty per cent Shiite, and where, in recent days, the violence had reached a comparatively manageable level—that is, two murders of secular political candidates, three or four car bombs, and a handful of attacks on polling stations—the question was whether to vote for Sistani or Allawi.

The religious parties had the best campaign song, chanted to a soundtrack, heavy on percussion and sweeping violins, that was blasted from loudspeakers on convoys of pickup trucks:

All the people should vote for 169
Because it contains those who were in the jails,
Those whose fathers and brothers were buried in mass graves,
The women who gave their sons,
Those who sacrificed for Iraq.
It's what the religious scholars want.
169 is like the garden for Iraqis
And Iraqis are the flowers
And these flowers grow because of the blood
Of those who gave their lives for Iraq.
God is great!
It's the day for the Shiites to give their voice!

Allawi, in turn, was flooding the Arabic television channels with slick campaign ads, and his government had recently promised raises to civil servants and police officers. His ticket was gaining ground in the minority Sunni and Christian areas of Basra, as well as among professionals. In the days leading up to the elections, a number of Basrawin told me that they sensed a surge toward Allawi.

The day before the elections was a religious holiday called Ghadir al-Khumm. In 632 A.D., as Muhammad made his way back to Medina from his final pilgrimage to Mecca, he is believed to have stopped by a stagnant pool of water, or ghadir, in the desert and held up the hand of his cousin and son-in-law, Ali. "For whomever I am his mawla," the Prophet told the world, "Ali is his mawla." Those Muslims who took mawla to mean "master," and believed Ali to be the Prophet's chosen successor as caliph, became the Shiites. Those who took mawla to mean "friend"—and who believed an entirely different account of who succeeded Muhammad—became the Sunnis. So Ghadir al-Khumm marked the beginning of the great fracture among Muslims, and the Arab Shiites were its historical losers. For centuries, they had lived under the religious authority of the Sunni caliphate, and, more recently, they had been dominated by Sunni politicians—even in Iraq, where Shiites were the majority population. Shiites had failed to join the first Iraqi government, under British occupation in the nineteen-twenties, because of a fatwa; and during Saddam's regime their leaders had been systematically murdered. For secular Iraqis, the country's first truly democratic elections meant that they could at last escape the nightmare of the Saddam years and join the civilized world. For religious Shiites, the elections would grant them their rightful share of power and correct a historic wrong going back more than a thousand years.

On the Friday before the elections, at the Hakemiya mosque, off a busy commercial street near the bombed intelligence building, Imam Muhammad al-Basry delivered prayers to the men packed into his small shrine. A loudspeaker blared his words to the surrounding neighborhood. He was just thirty-one, a former biologist with square-framed glasses, a missing front tooth, and an ill-at-ease manner. He made sure that his flock understood the significance of the fact that Election Day was the day after Ghadir al-Khumm. Ordinarily, Shiites would travel to Najaf on Ghadir al-Khumm to visit the shrine of Ali; but this year, as part of the election security effort, there would be a nationwide ban on car travel beginning at dusk on the eve of the elections. The Imam said, "There is something we can do that's maybe more important than this visit. We will make our rights clear. And that is much more important than visiting Najaf on the right day."

The Imam's voice rose as he tried to galvanize the men kneeling before him. "The day after tomorrow is Election Day," he said. "It will be a great day, and we should prepare ourselves for this day as we prepare ourselves for any other Islamic feast, because this day will bring victory to the people who suffered from injustice. It will be the day when there will be no more suffering for the people. It will be the day when the victim will get rid of the person who abused him." On Election Day, the Imam declared, Shiites should follow their marjayia, their religious scholars, who are the heirs to Ali and his family—the true heirs to the Prophet. The Imam arrived at the point of the sermon: the doctrinal connection between Ghadir al-Khumm and Election Day. "The marjayia composed and support a list, the United Iraqi Alliance, which carries the number 169, which carries the candle symbol," he said. "Did anyone not hear me? I want this word to reach even to the outside loudspeakers, so no one will be able anymore to say it is a lie. And I don't want to hear that the marjayia didn't support this list."

The Imam was venturing onto controversial ground. The other parties claimed that Sistani, who no one doubted had helped to compose No. 169, had blessed all the lists, and they cried foul when his picture started appearing on No. 169 campaign signs. (Sistani had said nothing to resolve the dispute.) The clergy had previously stayed out of the debate. Now Imam Basry wasn't content to clear up the doubt about Sistani's support for No. 169; he went on to imply that the Allawi government, by raising salaries, was trying to bribe voters. "I remind you that death is close to every person," the Imam said. "No one knows when he will die—he might die at any moment. What will he say to our God? ‘I voted for a certain list because they gave me money'? How can he face God with this answer?"

The Imam then told his flock what time the polls would open and close, how many pieces of I.D. to bring, how to find the list on the ballot, and how to check the right square. Apparently satisfied that his instructions were clear, he offered his valediction: "God will be with you that day, so you should not fear anything, you should have no fear of terrorists. The Shiites of Hussein should remember this saying: We refuse humiliation, and we should go to vote."

Sunday morning was strange and beautiful. The streets of Basra were so quiet that people later said it was like a feast day. Families, including small children and grandparents, walked along the wide avenues, everyone dressed in fine clothes. Policemen and National Guardsmen stood at intersections every couple of hundred yards, and snipers perched on the roof of the provincial government building. People on their way to vote were amazed to see men in uniform actually doing their jobs. By seven-thirty, at the schools that had been designated polling places, voters were already lining up; the queues were orderly and the faces a little solemn. People submitted without complaint to the frisks, and they seemed to keep their voices low out of respect. Election workers wore badges on their shirts: they were schoolteachers, housewives, unemployed college graduates. They handed out ballots with the slightly exaggerated seriousness of people performing a small but important ritual, like professors distributing final exams. They guided voters' right index fingers into a little glass half full of violet ink. Ordinary Iraqis on any other day, the election workers were thanked as if they were the heroes of 1991. The ballots themselves—beige for the national elections, blue for the provincial—were large and crowded with a bewildering array of party symbols. They looked cleaner and newer than anything I'd ever seen in Iraq.

At the Republican School, just off Independence Street, Shadha Muhammad Ali, a fifty-year-old housewife in a stylish red-and-black scarf, cast the first vote. "I spent thirty-five years of my life going from war to war," she said. "Now my hopes are for my children. We lost our future. We're looking for the future of our children." Mehsin Richem Hashem, a teacher of Arabic at the school and the manager of the polling station, said, "I've lived over fifty years, and I've never had such a feeling. My skin had a strange feeling, like goosebumps. We've had a great culture for six thousand years, and now I think our humanity is proved. We hope this democratic experiment brings this result, that the people are the real owners of the decisions in this country." He wore a slightly tattered jacket and a floral tie, and his face was taut, with a carefully clipped mustache. "There's a rumor they poisoned the water supply in as-Zubair this morning," he said, referring to a Sunni suburb south of Basra. (The rumor proved false.) "We don't care what the terrorists do. They have tried everything, but they can't do anything. Poisoning the water shows they're desperate."

Around eight-twenty, the school shook slightly when a mortar round landed a few hundred yards away. "Yalla," someone muttered. "No problem, no problem," Laith Mahmood Shakar, a thirty-two-year-old traffic policeman who had brought his children, said. "What we are doing now is a big thing against terrorism. It's like a challenge to them: We're voting—what can you do?"

A number of voters recalled the only elections they had known, the farces that had certified Saddam's popularity. They had been offered a choice between one box marked yes and one marked no; sometimes, the election workers cast their votes for them. This time, many people exercised their newfound right to keep their choices to themselves. Feisal Jassim, a retired oil-company employee—he had been among the worshippers who listened to Imam Basry's instructions—wouldn't reveal his choice. For him, the experience of voting freely for the first time, at age seventy, was what mattered. "Most Iraqis don't know what democracy means," he said. "Is it sweet, is it bitter? Does it have a taste or a smell? We don't know. After the elections, we'll find out."

In one polling place, I met Abdul-Khadem Hussein Abood, a uniformed National Guard colonel with a fragile physique, a hollow face, and piercing black eyes. Now fifty-six years old, he had been a prisoner of war in Iran for seventeen years, during the prime of his life; he was released and came back to Basra two days before the start of the war in 2003, and was overjoyed to find that his small children had grown up to become engineers and a doctor. Colonel Abood held up four fingers, one for each child: his index finger was stained.

The arrival of the Americans and the British in 2003 freed Iraqis from Saddam, but not from their own suspicions and grievances. It had been a victory of foreigners, which explained why Iraqis had reacted to the occupying forces with prickliness instead of mere gratitude. Liberation was, in a way, humiliating, and the almost two years that followed brought new calamities. On Election Day, the foreign troops were nowhere to be seen, and when Iraqis went to vote the achievement was finally their own.

I returned to the Republican School just before the polls closed, at dusk. The last person in line was Abid Hamid, a policeman who had been so busy all day that he'd almost forgotten to vote. "It's not important whom I choose," he said. "I just want to participate." The outer gate was locked, and I was allowed to stay and watch the count. The ballots were collected in bundles of twenty-five, and then laid out, one after another, on a wooden table in the middle of a sixth-grade math classroom. The right hand of the counter, a math teacher named Salih Younis Mahdi, was deformed; he had only the three middle fingers, and they were webbed together. He ran his hand rapidly down the ballots like a ruler, slapping the paper when he came to the checked box, then calling out the number. Ahmed Salih Mahdi, an elderly first-grade teacher, stood silently at the blackboard and recorded the votes in groups of five. Monitors from the parties and the election commission stood by, and when, predictably, the power failed, hurricane lamps were produced, and the classroom became a chiaroscuro study of long shadows and illuminated faces.

The final count at the Republican School was seven hundred and twenty-one for the Allawi list, five hundred and ninety-five for the Sistani list, and a handful of votes scattered among the others. The total number of ballots distributed was two greater than the number of votes counted, and so the men stood around the table in the middle of the room for half an hour more, their faces lit from below, going over the tallies again and again, until they realized that two ballots had been left blank. Everything had come out right.

Two days after the elections, I went back to see Majid al-Sary and found him elated. After all the looting and violence that followed Saddam's fall, he had been too ashamed of his country to bring his family to Basra, and he had been thinking of returning to Sweden if the election results meant the loss of his job in the Defense Ministry. But Election Day had shown him, he said, that "it is worth defending Iraq from terrorists." He went on, "I will stay and fight and stand forcefully for the Iraqi people, and if I die for them I'll be proud."

After a few days, the euphoria from the elections began to wear off, along with the ink on index fingers. Nationwide, the Sistani list won nearly half the vote, and in Basra it took seventy per cent. The Allawi list won less than fifteen per cent nationally and twenty per cent in Basra. In the provincial election, the local Shiite coalition won a third of the vote, with the Fadilah Party a strong second and the Allawi list a distant third. The success of the religious parties left the supporters of Allawi and the local secular candidates stunned, and some of them attributed the result to the misuse of Sistani's name and face. Some Iraqis said that Muhammad Rida, Sistani's son and spokesman, had panicked on the eve of the elections and ordered the Imams to hand down an official endorsement of No. 169. (Sistani's office denies this.) It was the Ghadir al-Khumm Surprise. In this first chance to "give their voice," most Shiites had obeyed their religious leaders. When Iraqis vote again later this year, to elect a permanent government, Sary said, they will hold the religious parties accountable.

In Basra, at least, there had been a contest. Iraq as a whole emerged from its first democratic election profoundly split between those who had voted—high numbers among the Shiites and the Kurds—and those who had not. Most of the largely Sunni parties had withdrawn or boycotted, out of principled opposition to the occupation, the prospect of doing badly, or the fear of being killed. And the vast majority of their followers had stayed home, though there were many anecdotes of individuals summoning the courage, toward the end of the day, to venture out into deserted streets to vote, under the hostile eyes of neighbors. The Sunni turnout was estimated to be fifteen per cent; in the vast desert province of Anbar, west of Baghdad, where the dominant tribes had declared a boycott, it was two per cent. The party of interim President Ghazi al-Yawar, a tribal sheikh from Mosul, won only five seats in the new National Assembly, which has two hundred and seventy-five seats. Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and an elder statesman of Arab politics, could not even win a seat for himself.

I visited Pachachi in Baghdad to find out how Iraq could move forward from such a divisive event, in which the country's historical losers had become winners and its winners losers. The transformation would be felt beyond Iraq: the country's Arab neighbors were already alarmed by the spectre of Iranian and Shiite influence rising in the Middle East. Before the elections, in Amman, Ghassan Salame, a Lebanese politician who served in 2003 as the senior political adviser to the United Nations in Baghdad, told me, "Sunnis don't see themselves as one among many factions. They see themselves as power. They consider themselves the inheritors of the Ottoman Empire. This is not going to change." When I repeated this to Pachachi, he replied, "I hope there will never be Sunni politics. I don't think there should be Shiite politics, either. We don't want to be like Lebanon. I think this is a temporary thing, this ascendancy of Shiism. Eventually, the majority of the Shiites will turn away from the religious parties. It's an aberration." He went on, "You will see. I think probably sooner rather than later Iraqis will go back to their secular roots."

Pachachi had been meeting with Sunni politicians and religious leaders to determine what it would take to bring them and their constituents back into the political game. "They said they were eager to rectify this mistake" of sitting out the elections, he said, chuckling—"without admitting it, of course." Pachachi was acting as a broker between the marginalized groups and the new centers of power, trying to find a formula by which Sunni leaders could join in the writing of a new Iraqi constitution despite their lack of representation in the assembly. This would both act as a brake on Shiite sectarianism and provide a way for Sunnis who were weary of fighting to rejoin Iraq's political life.

Iraqis of Pachachi's generation and the one that followed remember fondly a country in which no one knew who was Sunni and who was Shiite. The new wave of identity politics is often blamed on outsiders—variously, Iranians, Arabs, or Americans. Every Iraqi can name a sibling or a cousin in a mixed marriage. Of course, the Baath Party, whose leadership under Saddam became almost exclusively Sunni, did not share this egalitarian spirit. Adel Abdul-Mahdi, sciri's second-in-command and the current Finance Minister, described the Shiite sense of grievance as a long-simmering civil-rights issue. "We were so much frustrated, insulted, as Shiites," he said. "As you see with the blacks in the States, you cannot judge on big acts—it's the small, the daily behavior of others toward you. For example, your name. Whenever I say ‘Adel Abdul-Mahdi,' there will be another who will say ‘No, you are Adel Abdul-Hadi,' because Abdul-Mahdi is a Shiite name. It's not only that you are deprived of power, of authority, of functions, posts. It's the daily use of things. Those daily small facts really invade you and make you more conscious. And certain people in the outside world do not understand all this. It's huge. That's why, when you see No. 169 and the people voting for identity, it's not a sectarian question. It's a question of decades of struggle."

The gathering Shiite wave that crested on Election Day has produced a Sunni counter-reaction. It might take the form of a casual joke—such as the text message that was received by an aide to a Sunni Cabinet minister, who had just finished telling me that all Iraqis were the same. "If you like pleasure marriage, vote for 169," said the message, referring to the Shiite practice of religiously sanctioned liaisons. At the other extreme is the frequent, targeted murder of Shiite National Guardsmen, clerics, and ordinary citizens. The vote magnified the sectarian split, making it clear that the insurgency is based at least as much on loss of group power as on resistance to occupation.

Another effect of the elections has been to move the Americans farther from the center of Iraq's political life. The contest is more and more among Iraqis themselves. A Western diplomat in Baghdad, who had met with a hard-line Sunni cleric before the elections, told me, "He did not distinguish between the Americans and the Shiites. He said, ‘You are giving the country to the Shiites and the Iranians. It's not a fair game.'" It is no longer possible for Americans to convince such rejectionists to accept their diminished status in Iraq, the diplomat said. "But I think Iraqis could, if you have the right people at the top of the power structure here."

Whether the terrible violence in Iraq will grow even worse depends, in part, on the character of the country's first democratic government. Its new leaders are already suggesting that Islam, in a rigid or sectarian cast, will not dominate Iraqi politics. This will provoke a conflict within Shiism, for Iraq has extremists of every kind, and it will not be smooth or easy, but at least it will be something other than a death struggle among Iraq's Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. Basra, where politics has begun to move fitfully toward a state that might someday be called normal, offers one model for a way out of the logic of civil war. "I will fight the terrorism of thoughts," Majid al-Sary said, bringing his fist down on his desk. He was awaiting Youssef al-Emara, whose party had won the elections; they had made an appointment to continue their discussion that afternoon. "The elections showed the strength of religious ideas here. I will stay and fight those bad ideas. It's changing from a fight against violence and explosions to a new category—thoughts."

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