Back when Bill Clinton was trying to change the subject from his dalliance with a White House intern he tried to form an alliance with an Iraqi Shiite Ayatollah.
The Ayatollah played hard to get. Although the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 authorized Clinton to disburse military aid to Iraqi opposition groups, including the Ayatollahs, the clergyman scorned it. "We are not prepared to cooperate with the United States or the major powers to overthrow Saddam Hussein," he said, "because their intervention would harm the Iraqi people and their future."
Now Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, chairman of a group called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), has become indispensable-nay, unavoidable-to the coalition President Bush is building against Saddam.
Four years ago, this Ayatollah said, "Of course, our people hate Saddam, but they also hate the West for saving him and his system." Three years ago, he told Saudi Arabians it was "imperative" to keep the West out of Iraqi affairs.
Yet, this summer al-Hakim sent his brother to confer in Washington with officials of the Bush Administration, and in September he praised Bushs speech at the United Nations as "an important step in the American political discourse."
Now the Ayatollah, and all he portends, may help explain why Bush repeatedly insisted at the recent NATO summit in Prague that he would start a war to oust Saddam only as a last resort.
"But were not close to that decision point yet," Bush told Czech TV, "because were just beginning the process of allowing Saddam the chance to show the world whether or not he will disarm."
In Januarys State of the Union Address, Bush listed Iraq as part of the "axis of evil" and vowed, "I will not wait on events while dangers gather." Today he waits on Saddam.
Is Bush pandering to European allies anxious to avoid a fight? Or does he have second thoughts?
Certainly, his deliberate approach has gathered a broader alliance contra Saddam. But it also reflects the sincere statesmanship of a President reckoning with the potential downside of a war.
The Ayatollahs late father was once "the spiritual leader for the Shia world," says SCIRIs website. Al-Hakim himself was "co-founder of the Islamic political movement in Iraq." Since 1980, he has lived in exile in Iran, enjoying the patronage of the Islamic regime created by Ayatollah Khomeini. The Iranians allow him to maintain a force of 10,000 mujahideen.
Iran, of course, ranks alongside North Korea and Iraq in the Presidents axis of evil.
But if the Iranian regime remains a great evil, its Iraqi acolyte, al-Hakim, can at best be described as the lesser evil compared to Saddam.
If we push Saddam out of Iraq, the Ayatollah goes back. His triumphant hijra will deliver no democrat to Baghdad.
To be sure, al-Hakim now bows to the Western gods of free elections. But so did Ayatollah Khomeini before the Shah fell from power.
Americans unfamiliar with Shiism ought to read Ignaz Goldzihers Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, edited by noted Arabist Bernard Lewis, who describes it as "without equal" in its field. Goldziher explained the Shiite doctrine of taqiya, which commands believers to deceive enemies of the faith.
"The Shii," wrote Goldziher, "not only may conceal his true faith, he must do so. In a region ruled by his enemies he must speak and act as though he were of their number in order not to draw down peril and persecution on his comrades. It is easy to imagine what a school of ambiguity and dissimulation was created by this training in taqiya, which is an essential rule of Shii discipline. But the lack of freedom to make open profession of ones true faith is also a school of suppressed fury against ones powerful adversary: a fury that gathers itself into unrestrained hatred and fanaticism."
Saddam and his ruling elite are secularized Arabs who nominally profess Sunni Islam. This makes them a small minority in the country they rule. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, 15% to 20% of Iraqis are Sunni Kurds. About 3% are Christians. But 60% to 65% are Shiites-who have suffered for decades under apostate Sunni autocrats.
In July, Ammar al-Hakim, a SCIRI member, told the Iranian Students News Agency, "SCIRIs essential policy is not to side with either party in an American attack on the Iraqi regime, but to use the resulting opportunities to the full to fulfill the interests of the Iraqi nation."
When told last month that the U.S. may maintain a military force in Iraq after removing Saddam, SCIRI spokesman Hamid al-Bayati said, "The Iraqi people will not accept it and nobody else in the region will. . . . We refuse Saddams dictatorship and any other dictatorship in the future."
The London Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, asked the Ayatollah if he advocated "an Iranian-style theocracy" in Iraq. "Our main goal is to get rid of the dictatorship," he said. "The rest of the job is for the Iraqi people to decide."
Some of the Presidents lieutenants may see al-Hakim as an unfortunate but necessary instrument of our Saddam policy. But the President, in his ever-more cautious approach to war, may suspect that behind the veil of a doctrine called taqiya, an Ayatollah revels in the realization that the Great Satans army may be the instrument of his.