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Shiites of Iraq On Assignment

Shiites of Iraq On Assignment

Shiites of Iraq
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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By Janine Di Giovanni  Photographs by Matt Moyer, WorldPictureNews

They've been systematically repressed for decades. Now Iraq's majority Muslim sect prepares to play a powerful role in a chaotic, post-Saddam world.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

The claustrophobic room on Ach-Chwader Street was lit by a single oil lamp. A thin piece of cardboard covered the windows, a futile defense against bombs. Saddam Hussein's regime had just fallen, the war was supposedly over, but there was still fear in this slum in Baghdad. Word went around the neighborhood that I was taking notes about the disappeared, and the room became full of people who had not spoken out for years. One by one, they shuffled in. All were neighbors. All lived in grim houses made of rough mud and brick, without electricity or running water. All had faces creased with grief, the grief of losing a loved one during Saddam's reign. And all still clung to a distant hope that now that he was gone from power, they might find their son, their father, their sister, their brother.
From the street came the sound of rapid machine-gun fire, from the remaining fedayeen, Saddam's loyal forces. With each round, a woman named Badwiya, whose brother, Ghanim Iraabi, disappeared near the southern city of Basra two decades ago, flinched.
"We're safe here, but outside . . . ," she said, waving toward the window. She drifted off. Outside, in the hospitals and the mosques, the followers and militias of local clerics were frantically trying to restore order amid the looters and rioting crowds. "It's madness out there," she said.
The small house belonged to the family of Hilu Issa, a soft-spoken communications student who was 25 years old when he disappeared in June 1980. His family are Shiites, a sect of Muslims who despite being the majority in Iraq were brutalized during Saddam's regime.
One by one, I sat with the Issas' neighbors and relatives to hear their stories, all predictably terrible: The uncle who delivered fiery speeches at the local mosque and disappeared one day without a trace. A whole family of brothers who vanished. A young son of whom his mother wistfully said, "I just wish I could feel him, touch him, see him."
This was just one street, in one neighborhood, in one city in Iraq. It is difficult to imagine how the Shiites of Iraq will get past this trauma, will learn to live without a spirit of vengeance. But they are trying to move forward, to come out of the darkness that was the Saddam era. In today's Iraq this could be called the time of the Shiites. Since the fall of Saddam on April 9th last year and his capture on December 13th, the Shiites have used their newfound freedom to rename bridges, streets, and squares after revered Shiite leaders. They are practicing rituals and displaying iconography forbidden during Saddam's days. But the real changes lie ahead. On June 30th Iraq's provisional government is set to assume full sovereign powers for ruling the new country. While the details of how that government will be formed are still being sorted out, this much is clear: With Shiites representing some 60 percent of the country's population, a Shiite-dominated government seems inevitable. After decades of oppression, first by the British-imposed Sunni monarchy, and then by Saddam's secular Baath regime, the Shiites have emerged as key players in shaping a new Iraq.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Sights & Sounds
Meet the long-repressed Shiites and learn what fuels their  move to a position of power in Iraq's new government.

Online Extra
Discover the glory of medieval Baghdad.
Online Extra
Read an update on the Shiites' situation in Iraq.
After being victimized for so long, how can Iraq's Shiite majority put the past behind them to prepare for their role in a new government?

Final Edit
Rescued from the cutting room floor is this month's Final Edit, an image of intricately patterned rugs on the floor of an Iraqi Muslim shrine.

Bring the serenity of Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, Iraq, to your desktop.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Arabist, archaeologist, adventurer, maker of kings and countries: Gertrude Bell, the "uncrowned queen of Iraq,"  was once the most powerful woman in the British Empire (besides Queen Victoria). In 1899 Bell began her journeys through the Middle East, learning Arabic and befriending sheiks along the way. Earning the respect of various Arab tribal leaders, Bell was given the title "daughter of the desert." As the only female intelligence agent in the Arab Bureau in Cairo, Bell's knowledge of the region and of who was friend or foe of the British was vitally important to the British war effort during World War I.
With the end of the war and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, Bell was instrumental in determining the borders of modern-day Iraq and choosing its first ruler, King Faisal.  Faisal had led the Arab revolt against the Turks in the Arabian Peninsula, but he was not Iraqi. Because of this he faced great opposition in the new country. (Bell strongly believed in Arab self-rule and convinced British leaders that it would work in Iraq despite concerns that the tribal and religious divisions were too great.) For years, Bell served as Faisal's adviser but later turned her attention to Iraq's antiquities. Between 1923 and 1926 she established the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, which still exists today.
Toward the end of her life, her letters home spoke more and more of illness and depression. On July 12, 1926, at the age of 58, Bell suddenly died from an overdose of sleeping pills. No one knows if it was intentional or by accident. She is buried in Baghdad, in the land she'd grown to love and consider home.
You can learn more about Gertrude Bell, read her diaries and letters, and view her photos of the Middle East at
—Marisa Larson
Did You Know?

Related Links
Council on Foreign Relations|35||1
Current news and background information on the Iraq war, U.S. occupation, and transfer of sovereignty. "Background on the news" fact sheets cover the interim constitution, the Iraqi Governing Council, prominent Islamic clerics, weapons of mass destruction, and oil reserves.
Juan Cole Informed Comment Web Log
Daily postings on the situation in Iraq from Shiite expert Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan.
Muslim Women's League
Position papers on women's dress, divorce, participation in politics, and gender equality from an Islamic perspective.
Human Rights Watch
Human rights reports on postwar Iraq focusing on women, mass graves, insurgents, civilian casualties, and Saddam Hussein as a P.O.W.
UN News Centre
The latest news on Iraq from the UN. Access the text of UN resolutions concerning Iraq since the Persian Gulf war.
Middle East Institute
Background information, commentary, and Web links on Iraq provided by Middle East experts from around the world, including academics, former diplomats, and journalists.

Middle East Report
The Middle East Research and Information Project's (MERIP) quarterly magazine. MERIP is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization based in Washington, D.C.


"Iraq's Shiites Under Occupation." International Crisis Group, September 9, 2003. Available online at
Esposito, John. Islam: The Straight Path. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Fromkin, David. A Peace to End All Peace. Henry Holt and Company, 1989.
Goldschmidt, Arthur. A Concise History of the Middle East, 7th edition. Westview Press, 2002.
Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Warner Books, 1991.
Nakash, Yitzhak. The Shi`is of Iraq, 2nd edition. Princeton University Press, 2003.


NGS Resources
Boulat, Alexandra. "Diary of a War." National Geographic (September 2003), 94-119.

Balog, James. "Loaded Landscape." National Geographic Adventure (June/July 2003), 108.

Boulat, Alexandra. "Baghdad Before the Bombs." National Geographic (June 2003), 52-69.

Edwards, Mike W. "The Sum of Its Parts." National Geographic (February 2003), Geographica.
Belt, Don, ed. The World of Islam. National Geographic Books, 2001.
Edwards, Mike W. "Eyewitness Iraq." National Geographic (November 1999), 2-27.
Woodson, Leroy, Jr. "We Who Face Death." National Geographic (March 1975), 364-87.


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