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Post-US Iraq: Welcome to Shia-stan

Hadi Mizban / AP

Children play next to Shiite posters and flags in the primarily Shiite neighborhood of Hurriyah in north Baghdad on Nov. 15, 2011. The number of Iraqi neighborhoods in which members of the two Muslim sects live side-by-side and intermarry has dwindled.

ANALYSIS
 
BAGHDAD – It was a cold night in Baghdad. I was standing on the roof of Saddam’s information ministry listening to a televised speech by President George W. Bush. He gave Saddam Hussein and his sons 48 hours to leave, or else.

I remember the chills that went down my legs, as if I was bracing myself for an impact. A big war was coming. The American military machine had risen and was ready. 

This past Monday, on another cold night in Baghdad, I listened as President Barack Obama said the war is ending. Troops are leaving. This war is wrapping up. I had those chills again, but on this night, it was just from the cold.  

So much has changed since the war began. So many U.S. troops have made this the mission of their lives. Nearly 4,500 of them died in a war launched to find weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist and to topple a dictator who had nothing to do with 9/11 or Osama Bin Laden, even though that’s how it was sold. 

Saddam was brutal. He had no regard for the lives of his people. He buried his enemies in mass graves. Stalin was his hero. Saddam’s son, Uday Hussein, was evil, psychotic and, by many accounts, a rapist. But Iraqis have lived through absolute hell during the war – an estimated 150,000 of them have died, mostly at the hands of other Iraqis, according to some Iraqi government estimates. 

Regardless of President Bush’s intent in waging this war, what it wound up doing is replacing a dictator with a Shiite-run state that is close to Iran. This could not have been the plan.
 
Welcome to Shia-stan.

Shiite revenge
On April 9, 2003, as a few hundred Iraqis pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein, the crowds weren’t cheering for America. They were shouting the name al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric killed by Saddam. Pulling down Saddam’s statue was vengeance for al-Sadr’s murder. It was Shiite revenge. Saddam was a Sunni. Sunnis are a minority in Iraq, yet they had ruled the country for over a thousand years. 
 
When Saddam was hanged in December 2006, one of his executioners yelled the name “Muqtada,” in his ear moments before the dictator dropped through a trap door and a noose stretched his neck.  Muqtada is al-Sadr’s son. He is a radical anti-American Shiite cleric. Saddam’s execution – carried out on the day Sunnis were celebrating one of the year’s most important holidays – was more Shiite revenge.
 
When Iraq held its first elections, Shiite political parties won. 

Now, as American troops leave Iraq after almost nine years of patrols, IEDs and countless meetings with tribal elders, it is abundantly clear that the Shiites have won this country.
 
Haifa Street in Baghdad has long been a Sunni stronghold. It was once considered the most dangerous street in the world. Snipers from al-Qaida in Iraq – a Sunni militant group – would fire on U.S. troops from Haifa Street’s tall buildings during the height of sectarian violence in 2006- 2007. Al-Qaida’s all black flag hung from some of the windows. 

A few days ago, I was back on Haifa Street to meet officials at the High Council for Tourism. The black al-Qaida flags are gone. Instead I saw dozens of pictures of Muqtada al-Sadr and green Shiite flags. Outside the building, there were more Shiite flags and pictures of the Shiite martyr Hussein. 

I was at the tourism office to find out who is coming to Iraq and what they are coming to see.

It’s an especially holy month for Shiites, the month that marks Hussein's martyrdom in the 7th century. The country does have ancient sites, including Babylon and the Ziggurat of Ur – so perhaps they are a lure for tourists? But more tourists are coming to visit Iraq's Shiite religious sites.

The tourism official is like most government officials in Baghdad these days.  He’s a religious Shiite from one of the many Shiite political parties. He served our TV crew sweet tea in small hourglass shaped cups. 

Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP - Getty Images

Iraqi Muslim Shiites hit themselves with swords during Ashura rituals in Baghdad's Sadr City on Dec. 6, 2011. Ashura mourns the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.

When I looked closely, I noticed three words were engraved on the cups: Allah, Mohammed and Ali. Including the name Ali, Mohammed’s son-in-law, has only one meaning. Ali is the patron of all Shiites. These were Shiite cups.  Even the tea at the tourism authority was being served in Shiite cups. 

Several Sunnis at the tourism authority have recently been fired, they believe because they are Sunnis. Iraqi Shiites are clearly not shy about showing off their newfound power.
 
I asked the official who is visiting Iraq these days. Under Saddam, it was nearly impossible to travel to Iraq. And Iraqis, if they were allowed to leave, had to drive to Syria or Jordan to catch most international flights. Baghdad simply wasn’t connected to the world. 

Now there are direct flights here from Turkey, Sweden, Austria, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, among other countries. There are no direct flights to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, both Sunni states that have been critical of Iraq’s Shiite government. There are no direct flights to the United States.  But there are now on many days more than a dozen flights to Iran. 

Officials at the tourism authority told me that they registered more than 1.5 million Iranian visitors to Iraq in 2010, up 25 percent from the year before. This year they expect the figure to rise to 1.75 million. The official stressed that the tourism authority only registers Iranians coming to Iraq in organized tour groups, but many more Iranians come on their own.

Iranians are issued visas when they arrive at Baghdad International Airport. They can also land at the new international airport in the Holy Shiite city of Najaf and quickly get a visa on site. American citizens have to apply for visas in advance and they usually take three weeks to process.
 
When I landed at the airport in Baghdad on this visit, I had to wait about 15 minutes while my visa was verified. It’s a standard procedure. For years, I’ve seen this arrival hall packed with the oddest cluster of misfits imaginable. There were beefy American contractors in baseball caps, cargo pants and with badges around their necks. I’ve seen Americans arriving in Baghdad with big silver belt buckles and cowboy hats, too.  There were often British security contractors with tight t-shirts and Oakley sunglasses perched on top of gelled crew cuts. There were also small armies of sub-Saharan Africans hired to man American checkpoints and guide bomb-sniffing dogs.  And there were journalists with leather satchels, checkered scarves and long hair (usually the photographers).  

This time, nearly every person in the arrival hall was from Iran.  From the badges hanging around their necks, it was clear they were on tours to visit Iraq’s holy Shiite shrines in Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad and Samaraa.  The Iranian tour guides wore fedora hats.
 
So Iranians are coming in huge numbers. It doesn’t mean that Iran is taking over. Iran is, after all, Iraq’s neighbor, and Iraq can use the tourist dollars. But it certainly does show the direction Iraq is leaning and with whom Iraqis are connecting.

Related link: A growing Iranian threat, in wake of U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq this month

Green Shiite flag city
For most of the nearly six years I lived and worked in Iraq, our bureau was in the Jadiriya neighborhood. It is a relatively upscale part of Baghdad with clothing stores, a supermarket and a decent ice cream parlor. There were many bombings in Jadiriya, but compared to other areas, Jadiriya was relatively peaceful. Jadiriya was always a Shiite neighborhood, but there were Sunnis and Christians mixed in too.  Now the Sunnis and Christians are invisible. These days, there are more green Shiite flags in Jadiriya than I’ve ever seen.
 
About 65 percent of Iraqis are Shiite. If people want to express their religion, it is certainly their right. Americans couldn’t prevent it even if they wanted to.  But in Iraq, hanging flags isn’t a sign of religious celebration. It is a way to mark territory. It is a way to show dominance, like Marines landing on a beach and raising a flag to say: this is mine.
 
South of Jadiriya is the neighborhood of Dora.  Dora has long been a Sunni area, with some Shiites and Christians. The Christians and Shiites have now mostly moved out. They were driven away by al-Qaida in Iraq or opportunists who used the terrorist group to scare away their neighbors so they could buy their houses on the cheap.  If you were a Sunni in a neighborhood like Dora and you wanted your neighbor’s house, and your neighbor happened to be a Shiite or a Christian, all you had to do was slip a threatening note under his door and sign it “al-Qaida in
Iraq.”  The neighbor would usually accept any price for the house that was offered. 

Ali Abbas / EPA

Iraqi actors perform the epic of Imam Hussein, as part of the Ashura festivals in Baghdad, Iraq, on Dec. 6, 2011. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shiites visited the holy city of Kerbala throughout the Ashura week to mark the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of Prophet Mohammad.

War does ugly things to people. Greed and hate and cynicism bubble up to the surface.  I drove past Dora the other day.  I noticed a new set of houses being built nearby. The houses are still under construction, but on each one was a green Shiite flag and a picture of the Shiite Martyr Hussein. Some Shiite developers have obviously decided to encroach on Dora. They’re moving in. It’s a Shiite settlement. 
 
As I drove on from Dora, I kept thinking, sectarian violence is going to blow up in Iraq again. Many Sunnis feel they have no future in the country. 

Related link: Iraqi voices weigh in on the U.S. withdrawal

Cozy relationship will have U.S. national security consequences
But, cynically, does anyone outside of Iraq care anymore? My friends in the United States have long stopped asking me about Iraq. They don’t want to hear about it.

Friends used to like it when I would draw maps on cocktail napkins to show how Sunnis and Shiites are divided and how Iran moves in supplies to help Shiite militias. Now no one wants to see my maps. Most people seem to think if Iraqis want to kill each other, it’s their problem. 
 
Aside from the cost of this war in blood and money to the United States, a Shiite-led, Iran-friendly Iraq could have major consequences for American national security. 

Saddam Hussein was a secular Sunni dictator. He despised Iran. Saddam fought a war with Iran in the 1980s in which each side lost a half million men. Saddam let the world think he had nuclear weapons to keep Iran in check.

How times have changed. Iran now has both a close ally in Iraq and a key trading partner. Just look at the taxis in Iraq, which used to be old Volkswagen Passats manufactured in Brazil. Now, many of the yellow taxis choking Baghdad with traffic are boxy Iranian-made Saipas.  Iran is building an oil pipeline to Iraq, too.

The United States wants to punish Iran economically using sanctions so it abandons its nuclear program. But the United States has created economic opportunities for Iran in Iraq, and that could help undermine the sanctions.

Iraq has a long 900 mile border with Iran, and many Iraqi border guards are either corrupt or are sympathetic to Iran. That’s proven every day by the illegal drugs smuggled across the Iran-Iraq border, according to the International Narcotics Control Board, the independent monitoring body associated with the United Nations. If drugs can go across, so can materials banned under the sanctions. 

America’s efforts to strangle Iran with sanctions could end up being undermined by the very nation the United States went to such great efforts to create. 
 
Iraq is not an Iranian pawn. It is an independent and patriotic country. And some day, due to all its oil, it may be a very rich country, as well. The United States, despite the huge cost of this war can and probably will make money here eventually. Still, history may not be kind to this project. 

Iraq has become a Shiite-led state that feels a certain affinity to Iran, its giant Shiite neighbor. It is hard to imagine any of this was part of the plan when President Bush gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave on that cold night in Baghdad.
 
Richard Engel, NBC News Chief Correspondent, has covered Iraq since the initial U.S. invasion in March 2003. He is the author of two books on Iraq: "A Fist in the Hornet's Nest" and "War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq."

See more of his reporting on the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq on the Nightly News with Brian Williams Wednesday.

Related link: Photo Blog: Iraqi voices: Patchwork electrical grid a symbol of country's disconnects