The beginning of the Shiite revolt in Iraq means that the situation there is developing in the worst case scenario. Until recently, it was the Sunnis (former military and Baath functionaries) who formed the core of the resistance against the occupation forces in Iraq because they lost their privileged standing after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. They were supported by criminals whom Saddam released before the war, and professional terrorists from all over the world. However, the Shiites kept calm, despite expressing some disappointment with the actions of the occupation forces.
The Shiites, who make up 60% of the country's population, were the oppressed majority before the Americans came to Iraq. After Saddam was toppled, they decided to seek justice and are now claiming the leading positions in Iraq's political life. To get them, they do not have to fight the occupation authorities; they only have to wait until power falls into their hands in 12-18 months, provided everything goes according to the plan elaborated by the Americans and the provisional ruling council of Iraq.
Under that plan, the transitional government is to be formed after occupation of Iraq officially ends on June 30. For a year after that, the country will prepare for elections to the National Assembly and draft a permanent constitution, which is to be adopted at a referendum. The Shiites know very well that they will win the majority of the vote at general elections and turn Iraq into a state of their choice - and nobody will stop them.
Consequently, the shortest way to ending the occupation is not the murder of Americans but co-operate with them within the framework of the gradual programme for the transfer of power in the country. Helping the armed struggle will only prolong the occupation, say the bulk of the Shiites' spiritual leaders. But some Shiites rejected this approach.
They have a clear-cut religious hierarchy and their clergy is respected unconditionally. The top spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shiites is Ali Sistani. But the young Shiite generation wants power, too. Muktada Sadr, the son of Ayatollah Sadr killed during Saddam's rule (it was in his honour that the Shiite district of Baghdad was named), is desperately trying to become popular by fighting the occupiers. In early April, he called on the Shiites to rise.
The formal pretext for the revolt was the closing of his newspaper by the authorities and arrest of his deputy, who is suspected of murdering Sheikh Abdel Madzsid al-Hoi, who had returned from emigration, in April 2003. Sadr demands that political prisoners be freed and that occupation forces be withdrawn from settlements (their complete withdrawal from Iraq is not yet on the agenda).
In fact, Sadr has challenged not just the Americans but also his senior brother, Ali Sistani. He knows that if he wins this battle, he will take the leading positions in the Shiite hierarchy. And he does not care that the country will have to pay in blood for this.
So far, Sadr's ideas have been popular only among radical young people and much depends on the ability of Ali Sistani to restrain the majority of the Shiites. It will not be easy, as he cannot publicly denounce Sadr, who is rallying the people against the hated occupiers. If he does, the people will think he and his supporters have capitulated. The Shiite's spiritual leader will have to resort to his numerous diplomatic talents to prevent the spread of the Shiite revolt. If he fails, developments can follow according to two scenarios, neither of which will bring any good to Iraq.
Scenario One: More Shiites join the revolt but the Americans do not withdraw. On the contrary, they reinforce their stand and do their best to suppress the revolt. This entails numerous coalition and civilian casualties. The transfer of power to the Iraqis and restoration of the national economy will be impossible. The occupation of Iraq will last for years.
Scenario Two: The Americans lose their nerve and leave. In this case, Iraq will be immediately thrown into the chaos of a civil war, with Shiites and Sunnis, Kurds and Arabs settling old scores. This possibility was predicted immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein, but it did not happen then, above all thanks to the occupation authorities that prevent clashes between different groups of the Iraqi population. If the Americans leave, all the latent contradictions in Iraqi society will surge to the surface. The civil war will reduce Iraq to rubble.
In my opinion, the Americans must stay in Iraq, at least until a permanent constitution is adopted there. For their withdrawal will not only provoke a civil war but will also play into the hands of international terrorists, who will celebrate their withdrawal as victory over the world's largest power.