Sunni-Shiite Dominoes?

History will surely examine with a cold eye whether the Bush Administration looked carefully enough at the potential consequences before it went to war in Iraq.

But if decisions are made unwisely in the days ahead, it may also examine another question: Did the U.S. look carefully enough before leaving the war in Iraq?

Abdul Aziz al Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), visited President Bush at the White House this week. The visit was likely part of the follow-up to a memo that National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley sent to President Bush in late November which suggested that Bush push Hakim to throw his party’s support behind Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to help Maliki build a new political base independent from Shiite warlord Moqtada al Sadr.

That we must hope for Hakim to play this role is emblematic of the dilemma we face–and makes a review of some recent history timely.

There was a time when a certain leader vowed that Iraq’s “evil Baathist leaders” would be consigned “to the dustbin of history.”

It was not 2003, but 1980. The leader was Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. He believed that Iraqi Shiite clergymen, who had been his colleagues when he lived in exile in Najaf, Iraq, were primed to spark an Islamic revolution against Saddam Hussein.

These Iraqi clergymen were not Khomeini’s seedlings. They were parallel branches rising from the same root and trunk of Shiite revolutionary thinking that had produced Khomeini himself. Two Iraqi Shiite clans prominent in this movement were the Sadrs and the Hakims.

In The Islamic Movement of Iraqi Shi’as, published in 1992, Prof. Joyce Wiley of the University of South Carolina outlined the role these families played in the rise of Iraqi Islamism.

In the late 1950s, about the time Iraq’s military overthrew Iraq’s Sunni monarchy, a young Shiite clergyman named Muhammad Baqir al Sadr began a movement called Hizb al-Dawa al-Islamiya (Party of the Call to Islam). It was designed to provide a religiously-based Islamic political alternative to secular Arab nationalism and atheistic communism.

Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim, then Iraq’s preeminent Shiite cleric, supported Sadr’s movement, as did many of Hakim’s multitudinous sons. When al-Hakim died in 1970, Sadr became an ayatollah and inherited much of Hakim’s religious following.

After Iran declared an Islamic Republic under Khomeini in 1979, Saddam put Sadr under house arrest in Iraq. “From his confinement,” writes Wiley, “Ayatollah al-Sadr issued a fatwa declaring that believing Muslims were obliged to struggle against the Ba’th Party.”

In March 1980, Saddam declared membership in Dawa a capital offense, and executed 96 members. In April, he hanged not only Ayatollah Sadr, but also his sister Bint al-Huda, leader of a Shiite women’s movement.

The Dawa went into exile in Iran, and, in September 1980, Saddam preemptively invaded that country, in what he mistakenly thought would be a quick campaign to grab territory and end government by the ayatollahs.

In 1982, as the war continued, SCIRI was founded by Iraqi exiles in Iran. Its leader was Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, a son of the late Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim. Muhammad’s brother, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, became leader of SCIRI’s militia, the Badr Brigades.

According to SCIRI’s website, Saddam retaliated against the Hakims by arresting 125 family members and executing 18.

When Iraq’s first post-Saddam democratic government was finally formed this year, Nouri al Maliki became prime minister. He is a member of Dawa. Warlord Moqtada Sadr leads a bloc in Maliki’s coalition. He is a cousin of the late Ayatollah Sadr. Abdul Aziz al Hakim’s SCIRI is the largest single party in Iraq’s parliament.

SCIRI retains its Badr Brigades. Moqtada Sadr has his Mahdi Army. Both militias are backed by Iran. Both are reportedly responsible for sectarian murders and violence.

Sunni-governed Arab states—seeing the obvious potential for radicalized Iraqi Shiites to extract a payback for Saddam’s brutal bloodletting while securing their long-sought Islamic republic–have been fretting that if U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq before political stability can be established, a Sunni-Shiite conflict could ensue that goes beyond the borders of Iraq.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Nawaf Obaid, an adviser to the Saudi government, even warned that if the U.S. begins withdrawing from Iraq, the Saudis will intervene in some form themselves. “To be sure, Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks—it could spark a regional war,” wrote Obaid. “So be it.”

The dream of establishing democracies throughout the Middle East, beginning in Baghdad, must now give way to finding whatever practical steps can be taken to best protect our interests there while preserving our security here.