Shiites Rebellion Overshadowed by Kurds
May. 22, 1991
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ The plight of Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq has diverted world attention from another grim product of post-Persian Gulf War rebellion: the suffering of Shiite Muslims in the south.
Ruined cities, damaged mosques and shattered lives dominate the southern landscape, from the port of Basra through ancient settlements of the delta region to the holy Shiite shrines of Najaf and Karbala.
Towns and villages in the mountainous north suffered striking damage in the Kurdish revolt that began in the war's aftermath.
But losses of life and property appear much greater in the south, where Shiites rose up against Saddam Hussein.
In Najaf and Karbala entire blocks were destroyed, left in piles of rubble. On other streets, stores are burned-out shells, scarred by machine-gun and rocket fire. In the port of Basra, once Iraq's second-largest city, every government building was damaged or destroyed. Offices were looted and records burned.
About two-thirds of electricity and water have been restored, but the water is still unhealthy due to a lack of purifying chlorine. Cases of water-borne diseases such as cholera are reported rampant.
Thousands of Shiites are reported still hiding in the marshlands of the south, too fearful to return to their homes.
''The world isn't as concerned about the Shiites as they are about the Kurds,'' Jassem Hassan, 33, who fled his home in Basra last month, told reporters in Iran.
''It's because they are Shia. No one cares about them,'' said a Shiite woman in Baghdad, who like other Iraqis interviewed in the Iraqi capital asked not to be identified.
The Shiites have failed to equal the Kurds in winning world attention in part because Shiite rebels were less organized than the Kurds, who have been around for decades and are acquainted with the art of public relations.
Although tens of thousands of Shiites fled across the border into Iran, their exodus was dwarfed by that of hundreds of thousands of Kurds fleeing to frigid refugee camps along the borders of Turkey and Iran.
''The volume of the Kurds to Iran and Turkey was clear evidence of the tragedy of the Iraqi people in the north,'' said Ayatollah Taqi Mudarressi, an Iraqi Shiite leader now based in Syria.
The Kurdish flight also alarmed Western governments worried about the stability of Turkey, a NATO ally.
Shiites also argue that they receive less Western sympathy because of the reputation of radical Shiite fundamentalism in Iran and Lebanon.
''Westerners fear that the uprising in the south might be the continuance of the Islamic revolution in Iran. For this reason they ignore the uprising in the south,'' Mudarressi said.
Hassan al-Bazzaz, a University of Baghdad professor, said the two uprisings in the north and south that followed the gulf War cease-fire were ''completely different.''
''The Kurdish question is a clear one, limited, and it's been there since 1936,'' said al-Bazzaz, who noted that the Kurds were relatively well- organized.
''The south is another case,'' he said. ''We don't see any movement, well- organized with a clear objective.''
Shiites comprise nearly 60 percent of Iraq's 17 million people. The Kurds make up about 20 percent, approximately the same proportion as the Arab Sunni Muslims who form the basis of support for President Saddam and his Arab Baath Socialist Party.
Although millions of Iraqi Shiites make up the poorest class of society, they also traditionally are strongly represented in the upper classes, among intellectuals, artists and professionials.
But there was no clear agreement among the Shiites of Iraq to set up an Islamic republic in the south like that in neighboring Iran, Shiites say.
''The proof of that is the Iran-Iraq war. If they wanted an Islamic Republic, they would have fought on the side of Iran, and that didn't happen,'' said a former government official from a Shiite family.