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The Player

Baghdad Dispatch

Sheik Kadhim Fartousi is, by all appearances, a man of action. Dressed in an imam’s gray robes, black cloak, and white turban, he glides through the dusty streets of Al Thawra, Baghdad’s teeming Shia slum, pursued by a small entourage of acolytes and assistants. He is in constant motion, issuing instructions and signing forms on the go. Passing through the turquoise-blue metal gates of the Walaa General Humanitarian Organization, a charity he founded just after the fall of Saddam Hussein, he is met by several local residents, all seeking his advice. He refers a man with a sick child to a local hospital. He tells another to see one of his assistants about a job. He informs a third, inquiring about a brother in the army who has been missing since the war, that he has no news for him. “You see,” he says, turning to address me. “We are very busy here

“In the past three months, Fartousi has been very busy indeed. Since founding his charity, he has helped distribute food and money to the neighborhood’s needy inhabitants. He has taken charge of the excavation of a mass grave discovered on the city’s outskirts. And, in an unusual collaboration with the U. S. government, he has administered a U.S. Agency for International Development (usaid) program that spent $280,000 and employed 16,000 workers in a twelve-day effort to remove trash and sewage from Al Thawra’s filth-lined streets. It is this last effort that has turned Fartousi into a particularly prominent—and controversial—figure.

The emerging political power of Shia clerics such as Fartousi is frequently cited as a threat to America’s goal of transforming Iraq into a stable, democratic ally. Indeed, when Paul Bremer, the American administrator of Iraq, suddenly canceled local elections in the southern city of Najaf last week, the move was widely interpreted here as a clumsy attempt to check the political ambitions of the imams. But, in reality, the United States has little choice but to deal with Iraq’s Shia religious leaders religious-affiliated charities represent the only organized civil society in many parts of the country. What’s more, America’s interactions with Iraq’s Shia holy men are proving more beneficial to the United States than many critics understand.

Fartousi is typical of many of the country’s young imams. Just 32, he grew up in Al Thawra. Arrested for sedition in 1991, he spent eleven years in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. After he was released as part of a general amnesty in October, he returned to Al Thawra to preach and start his charity. In this effort, Fartousi was aided by the Hawza, an important Shia seminary in Najaf to which he swears allegiance. After Saddam’s regime collapsed, Fartousi’s charity set to work guarding food warehouses from looting and providing assistance to the neighborhood’s impoverished residents.

Then the Americans showed up and found Fartousi. “If you ask around in the neighborhood, you quickly find out who the key players are,” says Major Arthur Vidal III, whose troops have been working on reconstruction projects in Al Thawra. “People directed us to Fartousi.” Vidal, a burly Special Forces officer, quickly realized the young sheik was the kind of man with whom he could do business. “Kadhim Fartousi is a charismatic guy who has a lot of energy that, if applied correctly, can be tremendously helpful to his people,” he says. For his part, Fartousi was eager for the Americans’ help, though wary of their intentions. “The Americans say they come as liberators, not occupiers,” he says. “But it remains to be seen if this is true.” Fartousi says some of his fears about America’s presence in Iraq were allayed by his interaction with them on the usaid project. “We worked very well together,” he says. “As long as they continue to provide humanitarian assistance, we will be with them.”

Fartousi says he does not want an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq. But he doesn’t exactly want strict separation of mosque and state either. “Iraq should have a democracy, but it should be guided by Islamic principles,” he says. He believes there should be a religious component to public education, opposes the sale of alcohol, and believes women should cover their heads. Furthermore, some people Fartousi hired for the usaid cleanup program are associated with a Shia faction headed by Moktada Al Sadr, a young Najaf cleric. Al Sadr organized the largest Shia demonstration against the U.S. presence in Iraq to date.

It is little wonder, then, that many in Washington worry that the United States is making a mistake by courting imams such as Fartousi. In a recent congressional hearing, Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee drew parallels to Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution as he questioned Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz about the possibility that Iraq’s Shia clerics might, even as they accept U.S. aid, lead the population in creating a fundamentalist government virulently opposed to the United States. These fears extend beyond Washington. Some secular Iraqis believe that, far from “managing” the Shia clerics, America’s efforts to work with them are only increasing the chances that religious extremism will infect a future Iraqi government. “If the Americans cooperate with these sheiks, it will just bolster their power,” says Mazin Ramadhani, a professor of political science at Baghdad’s Al Nahrein University.

But the United States has no choice but to deal with relatively moderate clerics, at least until more secular Iraqi parties develop. Because Saddam brutally repressed any organization not affiliated with his Baath Party, there simply is no civil society in many areas except for the Shia religious charities. “It would be like ignoring the Catholic Church in Poland” after the fall of the Berlin Wall, says Crispin Hawes, a Middle East expert at Lehman Brothers’ Eurasia Group. The Shia clergy, who formed a critical underground opposition to Saddam’s regime, have emerged as the only means of delivering aid to the population and are thereby keeping them content while more liberal political groups begin to form. “The Iraqi people need some time to develop civil society that is not affiliated with the Islamic movement,” says Alah Abdel Razzak, a lecturer in political science at Baghdad University. “As we gain more experience with democracy, I believe people will reject the presence of religion in politics.” American officials know that, by working with Fartousi, they may be conferring upon him more legitimacy. But they say it is worth it to buy the secularists time and that establishing a relationship with men such as Fartousi, who are helping deliver essential services, improves America’s image in Iraq, reducing the chances of anti-U.S. sentiment and violence.

There is evidence that America’s Shia strategy is paying dividends. While some residents of Baghdad’s slums thank only Fartousi for having cleaned up the raw sewage in the streets, others say they are grateful for America’s help, too. “We are happy they [the Americans] are here” because they are providing services, says Abdul Hassan, a carpenter in one of Baghdad’s slums. America’s new alliances with the imams may even help explain why there have been far fewer attacks against American forces in Shia areas than in Sunni ones, though there was an attack this week that killed six British troops. In fact, in the south, the Shia heartland, there have been few violent anti-American protests. And the Shia holy city of Karbala, where the United States has worked with clerics, is a success story, with many essential services restored and less anti-American feeling.

Indeed, other leading imams who have met with Americans, including Sheik Abdurrakham Al Shweili and Sheik Russohh Al Gharrawi, have refrained from advocating resistance to the U.S. occupation. Others, such as the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, have urged Iraq’s religious establishment to stay out of politics and have even voiced tentative support for the U.S. administration of Iraq. And, at the same time, a secular Iraqi civil society has begun to develop, with dozens of new newspapers, small secular political parties, and nongovernmental organizations sprouting in Baghdad.

At some point, hopefully, the secularists may have gained enough momentum that the United States no longer needs to rely on the clerics as allies. For that reason, some Iraqis suspect the political power of Shia imams may actually be at its zenith now. “Most Iraqis, even Shia Iraqis, do not want to see an Islamic government,” says Hassan Al Ani, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. And, if the United States can earn the goodwill of average Iraqis while at the same time containing the imams’ anti-democratic tendencies, the transition to secular, pluralistic Iraqi politicians might actually succeed. Bremer only hopes Fartousi and his friends don’t realize they’re being played.

This article originally ran in the July 7 & 14, 2003 issue of the magazine.