Dismantling the existing power structure: Since Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled in 2003, Iraq has embraced political pluralism (Getty)
At noon, on a building site in Najaf, workers down tools to perform one of the five mandatory prayers of the day. They are a happy lot. For as their foreman explains after the prayer they are constructing what is intended to be the largest Shia Muslim seminary in the world which will take several thousand students. The site is located opposite the golden-domed mausoleum where, according to tradition, lie the mortal remains of Ali Ibn Abitalib, the fourth Caliph of Islam and the first Imam of Shiism. As a result, Najaf is the most sacred city for the world's estimated 300 million Shias. Last year, over 12 million pilgrims visited the Shia shrines along a route that leads from Najaf in the south to Karbala, Baghdad and Samara in the north, making Iraq the top tourist destination in the region.
The new seminary is not the only building project in Najaf. In fact the holy city resembles a vast building site where hundreds of projects are taking shape. These include five-star hotels for rich pilgrims and bed-and-breakfast outfits for those with modest purses. There are also shopping malls, restaurants and cafés, not to mention hundreds of housing units across the price range. The unprecedented boom in property prices in Najaf has attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment from as far away as Brazil, where the Shia community has established direct links with Iraq for the first time. Other big investors come from neighbouring Iran, where Shias are a majority of the population, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and India.
More importantly, perhaps, after a hiatus that lasted six decades, Najaf is regaining its prestige as the heart of Shiism. Over the past few years thousands of clerics have moved to Najaf from the Iranian city of Qom, hitherto regarded as the principal centre of Shia learning. Unlike Qom, where the Khomeinist regime in Tehran tries to control everything through a mixture of bribery and violence, Najaf is a free and open space in which theological speculation can be developed outside partisan political considerations. In Qom, five ayatollahs appointed by the government and on its payroll are presented as the highest religious authority in the land — just below the "Supreme Guide", who claims to be the sole leader of all Muslims. There are no such outlandish claims in Najaf. There, the hierarchy of religious authority is established through traditional mechanisms developed over centuries. This is why Najaf's senior clerics, notably Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, are emerging as de facto religious leaders of Shias everywhere, including Iran itself.
Ten years ago, all this would have sounded like an impossible dream for Najaf. Surrounded by Saddam Hussein's armed units, the city resembled a vast prison on the edge of the great Arabian desert. No new buildings or even repairs of crumbling historic sites were allowed. Saddam wanted Najaf to die. In fact, he wanted Shiism, the religion of a majority of Iraqis, to die, so that his dream of an empire based on a mixture of Sunni Islam and fascism would be realised in the name of pan-Arab unity. To destroy Najaf as the heart of Shiism he expelled thousands of non-Iraqi seminarians and stopped the flow of private donations to theological schools and faith-based charities. He also executed hundreds of theologians on spurious charges. Where he could not do so openly he arranged for the assassination of senior clerics, including two grand ayatollahs.
The overthrow of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime in April 2003 changed all that. At the time, of course, no one knew what the invading armies, led by the United States, might do to Najaf, indeed to Iraq as a whole. For over a thousand years, Najaf had witnessed the arrival of numerous foreign invaders including Mongols, Ottomans and Wahhabis from the Arab Peninsula. Each time, Najaf had ended up as a heap of rubble, its inhabitants massacred or driven out and its historic monuments set on fire. In 2003, however, things turned out quite differently. First, the invaders did not even enter the holy city. Next, they did not round up people for mass execution or expulsion and, more surprising still, provided funds for the rebuilding of the shrines damaged or destroyed by Saddam Hussein. Clerics imprisoned or exiled under his regime were released and helped to return to Najaf. The supreme surprise came when the invaders simply agreed to leave without securing any special interests in Iraq.
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