Shia Muslims from across Iraq gathered in the Iraqi city of Karbala this week to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. As many as a million people traveled to Karbala, most of them on foot, to observe Arbaeen, one of Shia Islam’s holiest days. It was the first time in thirty years that Iraqi or other Shiites could freely make the pilgrimage, which was banned by Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The Karbala pilgrimage is the boldest illustration of how the ouster of Saddam Hussein has ushered in a new period of religious freedom in Iraq. But some Shiite groups are threatening that very freedom by calling for the establishment of an Iranian-style theocratic dictatorship in Iraq.
As U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, the political system in Iran would be as bad a model for the people of Iraq as it has been for the people of Iran:
“I don't think that I would characterize what's going on in Iran as a democratic system… I think there are an awful lot of people in Iran who feel that that small group of clerics that determine what takes place in that country is not their idea of how they want to live their lives.”
Iraqis are taking the first steps toward setting up democratic political institutions. In the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni Muslim group, was recently re-established after being banned for decades. It opposes the use of violence and supports multi-party democracy.
The key to Iraq’s future is a democratic system that permits religious pluralism. Here is White House spokesman Ari Fleischer:
“The goals of a liberated Iraq, from the point of view about what type of government the United States seeks, is a democracy, a country that welcomes different religions, that has freedom of speech, freedom to worship, free press… That is our goal. And that's not inconsistent with a state that has religious elements to it. Certainly you can have a state that has religious elements to it that welcomes openness and worship and freedom.”
As White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, the U.S.-led coalition wants to ensure that Saddam Hussein’s regime is not replaced by another dictatorship.