January 29, 2006
BAGHDAD, Iraq Ś Iraq's prime minister shies from shaking hands with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Two male physicians are murdered for treating women patients. Nine men are shot dead as they sit alongside the Tigris River enjoying liquor.
Islamic fundamentalism that has been creeping into once-secular society since the U.S.-led invasion three years ago is becoming more pronounced. Some worry Iraq already resembles Iran during the first decade of that country's 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The growing fundamentalism and the cleric-backed government's close ties to Iran have raised concerns about civil war between the once-dominant Sunni Arab minority and the Shiite Muslim majority, who follow the same Islamic views as most Iranians. Many question whether the U.S. effort to create a secular government may end with an Iraq in Iran's image and shadow.
"If this isn't an Islamic state, then we're heading toward one," said Mohammed al-Ani, 23, a Sunni Arab college student in Baghdad. "It will be an Islamic republic in everything but name."
Some, however, say the worries are overblown. They point out that Iraq's minority ethnic and religious groups are stronger than those in Iran, which they argue would prevent the formation of a Shiite religious state.
Pessimists argue that such views were prevalent in Iran after the 1979 revolution, when liberals and leftists wrongly thought they would take over from the Shiite clerics when the shah was toppled.
Washington says it just wants democracy in Iraq and has never tried to influence who wins. At the same time, it has clearly favored secular candidates who have won little voter support, and it has urged Shiite Muslims to include Sunnis in the new government that will take power soon.
The United States and its British coalition partner, whose troops patrol southern Iraq, also have accused Iran of interfering in Iraqi affairs and even aiding the insurgency.
Nowhere is Iran's presence Ś and intensifying fundamentalism Ś felt as strongly as in Basra and some other Shiite-populated areas in the south. Iranian-backed Islamic groups began building their power bases soon after Saddam Hussein's fall and now enforce a strict code of social conduct.
In Basra, the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala and other parts of the south, secular ideas are not tolerated: Alcohol sellers and video shop owners operate at their peril in Basra. Clubs and restaurants are closed for playing music. Women feel obliged to wear veils.
Last year, some Basra University students picnicking in a park and dancing to pop music were assaulted by the Mahdi Army, a pro-Iranian militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Islamic social strictures have reached Baghdad, too, a fairly cosmopolitan city of 6 million people but which has Shiite-controlled pockets.
Around the city, as in the south, billboards and murals depicting turbaned and black-robed religious leaders remind that the Shiite religious establishment plays a major role in an already conservative society.
Hospitals, bridges, streets and other public places are named after ayatollahs.
A yellow flag with the inscription of a Shiite slogan is hoisted on a monument that replaced the statue of Saddam in Firdous Square that was toppled on the day his regime collapsed.
A clinic where male technicians performed ultrasound examinations of pregnant women was threatened with closure. Two doctors were slain last year for treating women patients.
On Dec. 30, gunmen in a car killed nine people and wounded 16 as they sat on the bank of the Tigris in eastern Baghdad. Police said the victims were drinking alcohol, suggesting the gunmen were Islamic fanatics enforcing their religion's ban on consuming liquor.
When Rice visited Iraq on her first trip as secretary of state last year, she reached out her hand to Prime Minister al-Jaafari for a photo shoot.
Al-Jaafari, who follows Shiite teachings that touching a woman's hand is inappropriate and un-Islamic, bowed respectfully with his hand on his chest, refusing Rice's gesture Ś although he did shake her hand when they met at U.N. headquarters in New York.
Before an interview with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the leading Shiite political group, an aide asked an Associated Press reporter if she would not mind wearing a scarf before the cleric entered the room. But no fuss was made when the reporter declined.
However, al-Hakim shook hands only with the male photographer accompanying the reporter.
Many Iraqis, especially secular Shiites, object to suggestions Iraq could turn into an Iran-like Islamic state. They note Iran is a strongly Shiite nation, while Iraq has big communities of Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Turkomen and Christians who would oppose an Islamic republic.
They cite the constitution as insurance.
"I don't deny that there weren't attempts to impose religious ideology into the constitution, but it was rejected," said Abdulrazzak Zanganeh, a Kurdish legislator who helped draft the charter last year.
He added, however: "We have to accept certain realities Ś that the Shiites are the majority and Shiites are bound to vote for them."
The latter point is what worries even some secular Shiites. They fear a Shiite-dominated government will increasingly impose its beliefs and values despite Iraq's traditions of letting the various religious communities follow their own ways.
Some secular groups have charged that Iran's leaders manipulated Iraqi elections in favor of their supporters and provided them with publicity on their satellite TV stations that are widely viewed here, especially in the south.
The leading Shiite group, al-Hakim's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, not only has its own Al-Furat television station, but the Iranians campaigned for the group on their Al-Alam satellite TV that is widely watched here, said Ali Dabbagh, a Shiite politician. So did al-Manar, the pro-Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah TV station, he said.
Another Shiite party, Dawa, has two TV stations Ś al-Jaafari's Biladi and the party's Afaq.
Critics also point to the continued strong influence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme Shiite religious leader in Iraq.
Sistani, 75, says he opposes a theocratic state as well as participation by clergy in politics, but he has been doing both indirectly since Saddam's ouster.
The Iranian-born Sistani, who never appears in public and makes his declarations through spokesmen in the holy city of Najaf, signaled to his followers to vote for the main Shiite-led political coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, in the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.