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The Shiites' Long Road to Power

A.D. 632-680 _ The Shiite-Sunni Split
When Prophet Muhammad died in 632, some (who would later become known as Shiites) believed his son-in-law and cousin Ali should be the first caliph, but he was passed over. Ali eventually became the fourth caliph, but was assassinated in 661. Two decades later, in 680, Ali's son Husayn was killed in a battle in Karbala when he challenged the seventh caliph, cementing the split between the sects.

1920-1932 _ Revolt Against the British
With the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the end of World War 1, Britain and France carved up the Middle East. Control of Iraq went to Britain in 1920, and Shiites and Sunnis joined together briefly in rebellion. Britain crushed the revolt and installed a non-Iraqi, Faisal, as king, setting up a succession of Sunni governments. Viewing Shiite clerics as a threat, Faisal sought to lessen their power. Iraq gained independence in 1932 but stayed a monarchy.

1933-1957 _ Demands for Equality
Denied adequate representation in government and the civil service, Shiites demanded reforms. Demonstrations broke out in Shiite areas and led to a failed revolt in 1935. Although more Shiites became educated and the monarchy gradually increased the number of Shiites in government positions, the Sunnis remained firmly in control. Hoping to gain greater political clout, many Shiites joined the underground Iraqi Communist Party.

1958-1978 _ Baaths Rise to Power
The monarchy was overthrown by a military coup in 1958, and unrest ensued. The Baath Party took over the government in a 1968 coup and Saddam Hussein rose to power. To thwart the appeal of communism among Shiites, a group of Shiite leaders formed a political party, al-Dawa, to oppose the secular state. As the Baaths repressed religious practices and executed several Shiite clerics, both secular and religious Shiites were drawn to Islamic ideology.

1979-1989 _ An Islamic State Next Door
The same year Saddam took over as president of Iraq, Iranians overthrew the shah and installed a Shiite theocracy. Fearing the emboldened al-Dawa's growing power, Saddam launched a campaign to abolish the party and in 1980 had its leader, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, executed. Many Shiites were deported or fled to Iran. Yet when Saddam invaded Iran in 1980, Iraqi Shiites fought against Iranian Shiites in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.

1990-2002 _ The Persian Gulf war
Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, prompting U.S.-led forces to push Iraq back inside its borders. George H.W. Bush encouraged the Shiites and Kurds to revolt against Saddam but withheld military support. The uprising was violently put down by Saddam's forces. Tens of thousands of Shiites were killed and many more went into exile. The United Nations passed resolutions demanding that Iraq eliminate its weapons of mass destruction.

2003 _ U.S. Invasion of Iraq
U.S.-led forces entered Iraq in March 2003 and overthrew Saddam's regime. The U.S. created an interim Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), made up of 25 representatives, including 13 Shiites. Two leaders of major Shiite families returned from exile and were assassinated. U.S. occupation forces faced continued opposition. The former leader was captured on 13 December 2003.

2004 _ Shiites Poised for Power
The IGC signed an interim constitution despite the objection of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who wanted a charter approved by an elected national assembly. The United States returned sovereignty to the nation two days ahead of its 30 June schedule.

Source: National Geographic Magazine | June 2004

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