By HAMZA HENDAWI, Associated Press Writer 53 minutes ago
Hassan Allawi, one of Iraq's most prominent historians, looked forward to the ouster of Saddam Hussein's government and the chance for fellow Shiites to lead his country.
Now, he's disgusted.
"They have come to rule but they have no idea how to do it. They've left the Shiites with nothing to be proud of," said the silver-haired scholar, 72, who spoke by telephone from Syria.
The results of the past four years have disillusioned many of Iraq's Shiites, especially the educated, secular elite like Allawi. They've begun speaking out with grievances and sometimes anger about the Shiite-led government's failure to provide security, services and jobs, and what some of them see as a thinly disguised theocracy.
"We expected positive change," said Saleh Ismail al-Gournawy, a 54-year-old engineering professor at Basra University, in Iraq's mainly Shiite South.
The area near Basra, Iraq's second largest city, is rich in oil. But it remains impoverished, as it was under Saddam, and al-Gournawy blames the government.
The British-educated al-Gournawy recounted with horror a March 22 gunbattle between rival Shiite groups on the street where he lives. There's no end to that violent infighting, perhaps because the government itself is crippled by factions competing for power, he said.
"In reality, we have political groups but not a government," he said.
"We are completely disappointed. They did nothing for us," agreed Mona Hussein, a 35-year-old engineer and mother of two who lives in Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City district. "But Shiites will not revolt against this government because we are accustomed to making do with so little."
Historically, mainstream Iraqi political groups have been secular, pan-Arab and nationalist. While minority Sunnis dominated, they came from both Muslim sects and their biggest following was in the cities.
After the 2003 invasion, U.S. officials appointed and supported Shiite leaders of that stripe, along with those from religious parties.
But beginning with the first of two general elections in 2005, Shiite voters abandoned secular-minded politicians in favor of religious candidates. They heeded fatwas, or edicts, issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's top cleric, who decreed the faithful should elect candidates from religious Shiite parties loyal to him.
Kamil Mahdi, an expert on Iraq from Exeter University in Britain, says he suspects the discontent is widespread. "I don't think the Shiite politicians in power now represent the Shiite street," he said. "But the oppression suffered by Shiites under Saddam remains fresh on the minds of most Shiites and that keeps them quiet."
Mahdi, who is Iraqi, says the Iranian-born al-Sistani and other top Shiite clerics had stepped over traditional bounds when they meddled in politics.
"The marjaiyah (Shiite religious leadership) should be a moral authority for all Iraqis and a spiritual authority for all Shiites, not just those who espouse parties of political Islam."
Shiite government leaders defend their tenure, blaming the Sunni insurgency, al-Qaida terrorists and interference from Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors for the government's failure to restore security, provide services, create jobs or combat crime.
Shiite religious leadership was needed to guide the nation at a critical time, they said.
"The future of Iraq and the future of Shiism is in the hands of marjaiyah," said Hameed Moualah, a prominent lawmaker from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country's largest Shiite party and the closest to al-Sistani. "It has a divine authority to guide us."
The appearance, however, transcends that of mere guidance.
Posters of al-Sistani and other top clerics peer down from the buildings of most government agencies. Shiite red, green and black banners flutter from Baghdad rooftops, mosques and street lights. The public rhetoric of many Shiite politicians has become increasingly sectarian as Shiite-Sunni violence continues to push the two communities further apart.
A banner mourning one of Shiism's most beloved saints, Imam Hussein, greets passengers arriving at Baghdad International Airport.
Yet, the trappings of Shiite power can make the disappointment worse for Shiites who expected to reap benefits from Iraq's new politics.
Sami Kareem, a 26-year-old clerk from Basra, says he is fed up.
"When the regime was toppled and our Shiite people came to power, we expected things to be much better," he said. "But nothing happened. Every one is fighting for power and money."
Another Shiite, Baghdad security guard Ali Hussein, said Shiite empowerment has done little to improve his life, and those of his wife and two children.
"We Shiites now want a government that realizes our dreams even if it's not Shiite. People are so frustrated that some are even saying that Shiites cannot rule," he said.
Allawi, the Iraqi historian, believes the way out of Iraq's current predicament lies in Shiite-Sunni harmony. Toward this goal, he has made a contribution.
He just published a book, "Omar and Shiism," that attempts to exonerate the name of Omar, a 7th century successor of the Prophet Muhammad who has for centuries been maligned by Shiites.
Shiites believe the 7th century caliph usurped the leadership of Islam's young state. It may seem an obscure historical dispute. But Allawi's point is that such issues have repercussions in today's Iraq, where many Shiite clerics have left their seminaries to enter politics.
"When you are in the Hawza (Shiite seminary), you can say whatever you want and no one outside will ever know," he explained. "You can insult Omar in the Hawza and your listeners will be happy, but when you are outside, you are dealing with an Arab world that's 90 percent Sunni."