Terror On The Tigris

As the procession crowded across the bridge toward Baghdad's Kadhimiya shrine, Hussein Abbas heard a murmur rising around him. Within seconds the whispers turned to panic. Someone said there was a suicide bomber. People began running. "I fell, and people fell over me, and others stepped over us," says Abbas, 33, a carpenter from Sadr City. He tried to get up and get away, but he was trapped. The bridge's metal railings buckled, and pilgrims began toppling into the Tigris. Abbas saw a small boy knocked to the pavement nearby. "He started crying, 'Uncle, please get off me, I'm choking!' I couldn't move [to help him]," recalls Abbas from a hospital bed. "I watched the little kid die."

Nearly 1,000 Iraqi civilians were killed last Wednesday morning in what was by far the country's deadliest incident since the 2003 invasion. Most of the victims were women and children who fell in the stampede. The suicide bomber was imaginary--this time. But the day of the disaster began with a rocket and mortar attack near the Kadhimiya shrine that fueled the paranoia. And in the past year and a half, terrorists have killed hundreds of worshipers at Shiite mosques and shrines around the country. Iraq's predominantly Sunni insurgents have made no secret of their desire to stir up ancient sectarian grudges in the name of driving out the Americans. If not for the restraint of the Shiites' spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country might easily have sunk into an unholy bloodbath of tit-for-tat mosque bombings.

As it is, the splits are growing too fast for anyone to say where or whether they will stop. Prominent Shiites, abandoning their past insistence on a united Iraq, have begun demanding an enclave to call their own. The idea's backers now include Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Shiites' biggest and strongest political organization, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). In the last sensitive days of negotiations on Iraq's new draft constitution, Hakim suddenly called for the creation of an autonomous Shiite state within Iraq, analogous to the northern region of Kurdistan: "One federal state in central and southern Iraq, an area of shared bonds and one social fabric," in his words. "We must not miss this chance."

Foreign commentators have already named the place "Shiastan." Hakim's proposed nine-province enclave would stretch all the way from the Umm Qasr oil terminal to the southern outskirts of Baghdad, encompassing just over a third of Iraq's total area, nearly a third of its population (most other members of Iraq's Shiite majority live in and around the capital, which would remain outside the autonomous zones) and roughly two thirds of the country's proven oil reserves. It's anybody's guess exactly how the country or its constituent regions would function; the draft constitution, scheduled for a national referendum in October, sketches only the vaguest possible outline of a federal system, since Sunni negotiators object to the whole federalist idea. Now the job of arguing out the messy details has been postponed until a new group of legislators can be elected in December.

When the details are finally worked out, Iraq may hang together--but just barely. To get an idea of what life in Shiastan might be like, it's useful to think about Kurdistan's relationship to Iraq's central government today. The Kurds have no intention of giving up the hard-won self-rule --they've enjoyed since 1991, when the first President Bush imposed a no-fly zone against Saddam's Air Force. "There's nothing 'Iraqi' about Kurdistan," says Peter Galbraith, an independent adviser to the Kurds and former U.S. ambassador to Croatia. "The Iraqi flag doesn't fly there. It has its own military. The Iraqi military is banned from going there."

Now imagine a Kurdistan run by ayatollahs. Iranian-style morality enforcers have been gaining strength in the south ever since the U.S. invasion. In formerly wide-open Basra, functioning liquor stores have become a rarity. The owners got too many death threats. Many Iraqi Christians are fleeing the area, moving to Baghdad and elsewhere. Women are increasingly afraid to leave their homes without a headscarf. Hard-liners in Nasiriya have reportedly been tearing down "get out the vote" posters that portrayed a woman with her hair visible. Some women may welcome the mullahs at first, as a force far more effective than the local police against street crime. "They think, 'Here comes a group of vigilantes that's providing us security'," says Manal Omar, Middle East coordinator for the activist group Women for Women International. "They don't realize how far it will go. It's what the Taliban did in Afghanistan."

Even now the Baghdad government exerts no more than nominal control over much of the south. Law and order is relegated largely to militias affiliated with the main Shiite political groups. They wage turf wars in the streets and carry out personal vendettas, ac-cording to local residents and international human-rights groups. When the groups aren't administering their own brand of street justice, they're often protecting friends who would otherwise have to answer in court for their crimes.

The biggest of the Shiite militias is SCIRI's armed wing, the Badr Brigades. In an autonomous Shiastan the group would likely have a role comparable to Kurdistan's de facto army, the peshmerga. Some Iraqis worry about the possible effect on public order if the Badr Brigades achieved full legal status as defenders of the region's streets. "If Badr is going to be treated the same way as the peshmerga in Kurdistan, that will cause a lot of problems," says Ali Rasheed Mania, chief judge of the Missan district appellate court. Ammar al-Mayiahi, the Badr Brigades' commander in Basra, insists otherwise. "We will abide by the law and we will support it," he vows, denying any wrongdoing by his organization. He says its members are dedicated to serving the people and rebuilding the country.

The Americans see risks on a much larger scale. Their big fear--short of Iraq's complete disintegration--is that Tehran will come to dominate the region. "Iran wants to see a united Shia world," says a U.S. military intelligence officer who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of his position. "That means they want total control over the Shia in Iraq. We see it as a destabilizing factor." U.S. military officials say Iranian intelligence has already infiltrated the most senior levels of the Baghdad government. An autonomous Shiastan could become a playground for the Iranian hard-liners who sheltered and sponsored practically every Iraqi group that ever challenged Saddam's regime. "These militias don't act independently; they get their orders from higher up," the MI officer says.

Even some Shiite leaders agree that the Americans are not just imagining things. "There is an Iranian influence now, and there will be more if we create a separate region," says Jabir Khaleefa Jabir, head of the Basra branch of the Al-Fadheela Islamic Party. The conservative group, which seeks the imposition of Islamic law, nevertheless has no great desire to take orders from Tehran. "I believe the national borders between us are on their way to melting," warns Jabir.

Al-Mayiahi scoffs at such suspicions about his party's old benefactor. "The Iranians are in no need of land, oil, population, weapons or anything else that could be available here in Iraq," he says. Yet the two countries together sacrificed well over a million fighters and civilians two decades ago in an all-out struggle for control of the Shatt al Arab waterway. And most of the petroleum in Iraq--the No. 3 oil country in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Iran--is beneath the sands of Shiastan. Just about the only explicit allocation of federal power in the draft constitution is a provision that gives the central government control over all existing oilfields. Still, some southerners, tired of poverty and power failures, have their own ideas. "The resources we have here in the south are enough to fulfill our demands," says al-Mayiahi. "We are planning to make the resources here in the south available to support the other regions after taking our share."

Not every Iraqi Shiite believes in the promise of Shiastan. Ahmed Kadhim, 27, watched helplessly from the banks of the Tigris last week while so many pilgrims fell to their deaths. He blames the politicians in Baghdad for the tragedy. "The people calling for southern-region federalism are the same ones who are in the government now," he says. Weren't they the ones who allowed Iraq's security forces to place checkpoints at either end of the bridge, he asks, in effect choking off the only safe escape routes? "I wonder how they expect us to believe their promises to make the south better." That may be unfair. But these days nearly everyone in Iraq--Shiites and Sunnis alike--feels panicked and trapped.