Shiite Islamists are likely to ultimately become the dominant power in post-war Iraq. As the Baath Party is dismantled by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the organizational counterweight to Shiite Islamist power is being weakened, and the Shiite Islamist groups have demonstrated that they are better organized and funded than other non-Baathist groups.
For now, the major challenge to the Shiite Islamists comes not from Iraqis, but from U.S. troops. The Shiite Islamists have apparently decided not to challenge U.S. forces openly. Instead, they apparently hope that Sunni violence in central Iraq may trigger a weakening of U.S. staying power, paving the way for Shiites to assert themselves. Shiite Islamists are also benefiting from the weakening of Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi. The U.S. decision to delay the formation of an Iraqi interim authority and to disarm militias, including Chalabi's Free Iraqi Forces, suggests U.S. support for Chalabi is weakening, and with no evident party structure or large popular backing, he no longer appears poised to become a major political force.
The influence of Shiite Islamists is also not likely to be decreased by competition or civil war among various factions. Shiite infighting has died down considerably over the past month, thanks in part to the many interlocking relationships within the Shiite community. Much has been made of attempts by the young Moqtada Al Sadr, head of the Sadr clan, to assert himself against Muhammad Baqr Al Hakim, head of the better established Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). But Moqtada Al Sadr's great uncle, the revered Muhammad Baqr Al Sadr, was a teacher of Al Hakim and the founder of the Dawa Party, of which Al Hakim became a key member in the 1970s. Such intricate ties immediately curbed the violence that threatened to explode when followers of Moqtada Al Sadr assassinated returned Shiite moderate Abd Al Majid Khoi in late March. Since then, influential senior Shiites, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani and leaders of the Hawza Ilmiya, an association of seminaries, have been discouraging younger Shiite clerics from following Moqtada Al Sadr.
Thus, SCIRI will likely emerge as the dominant political force within the Shiite community, making Muhammad Baqr Al Hakim the most powerful leader in post-war Iraq. His position may in future be bolstered by Ayatollah Al Sistani's support. There are indications that Al Sistani may suggest Shiites look to Al Hakim for political guidance: a pronouncement by Al Sistani on May 13 said almost as much. Al Hakim is getting recognition from non-Shiites as well; Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani went to Najaf in early June and met with both Al Sistani and Al Hakim. Finally, Iran has apparently offered Al Hakim whatever resources he needs to prevail politically. He is supported by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as well as President Muhammad Khatemi and Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a former president.
Even if Iraq does become a democracy, with regular free and fair elections, SCIRI and other Shiite organizations will have a major role in candidate selection and election outcomes. What is more likely is that Iraq will become a quasi-democracy, with elections for a national assembly and maybe even for an executive, but with the Shiite clerics as the powers behind the throne. Iraq will likely remain an integrated whole under such leadership. SCIRI has cultivated highly positive relations with both major Kurdish parties, which allowed fighters from SCIRI's Badr Brigades militia to deploy in the north on the eve of the war. Even former Baathists and Sunnis could probably accommodate themselves to SCIRI leadership, as long as strict, Iranian-style Islamic rule was not imposed. So far, SCIRI has avoided this contentious issue in favor of an emphasis on independence from foreign rule.
Despite the possibility of stability under Shiite Islamist rule, such an outcome is strongly opposed by the Bush administration. In the administration's view, a SCIRI or other Shiite Islamist successor regime would severely tarnish the outcome of the occupation and raise significant questions about the wisdom of the war. In the past month, senior U.S. officials stated that an Iranian-style Islamist government in Iraq is unacceptable, U.S. forces raided SCIRI offices in Baquba and Baghdad, and U.S. administrator Paul Bremer cancelled mayoral elections in Najaf to avoid a SCIRI candidate victory. Yet, it is not certain such moves can curb the considerable organizational advantage enjoyed by SCIRI and other Shiite Islamist groups, especially once the United States removes its military forces.