Most Americans know that Iraq will soon have its first elected government and that that's a big deal. But in the Middle East, this is seen as a historic and revolutionary moment for a different reason. For the first time since the establishment of the Abbassid Caliphate in A.D. 740, an Arab country will be ruled by Shiites. The minority sect of the Islamic world (a majority only in Iran, Bahrain and Iraq) will move to the front row.
For some Arabs, this is a far more unsettling prospect than democracy. How the Shiites will handle power, especially in their first few months, will have an enormous effect on Iraq and the entire Arab world.
Jordan's King Abdullah raised the specter of a single monolithic "Shiite Crescent" that would presumably act in concert. This is "misleading and based on a misconception," Iraq's incoming Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari told me. The Shiites are a religious community, he explained, not a political one. "In Libya or in Lebanon, (the Shiites) all follow one school of religious thought, but their political concerns are different," he said.
It strikes me as highly unlikely that Shiites would all act as one, any more than Catholic countries ever did. National interests usually trump religious solidarity. Look at the many wars among the Sunni Arab states.
Jaafari repeated the message of restraint and inclusion that all major Shiite leaders have been articulating for months. "Ours will be a civilized and modern agenda that accommodates all Iraqis," he said. "We suffered from factional aggression and do not wish to replace it with a new one. We insist on forming a multicommunity government in a way that will reflect the demographic nature of the population."
Beyond incorporating Sunnis into the government -- about which Shiites have actually been less accommodating than the Kurds -- there is an even hotter issue: de-Baathification, again. Shiite politicians insist that Iraq's security services have been infiltrated by Baathists and that the easiest way to end the insurgency is to purge these people from the government.
American officials in Baghdad, closely involved in building Iraq's security forces, believe that even if some infiltration has taken place, it would be counterproductive to start weeding people out. "They will spend a lot of time and effort churning up the security services and end up making them less effective," said one.
Outgoing Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who is a Shiite himself, was more emphatically opposed, arguing that this would be seen as a wholesale anti-Sunni campaign. He raised another prospect. "These purges are a prelude to bringing in the militia," he said.
Every major political party in Iraq today has its own armed wing. Allawi's fear is that if the Kurdish and Shiite militias are moved en masse into the national Army, this will only encourage Sunnis to build their own militias. "And frankly, militias are not groups that can be controlled," he said. "Law and order in the country will simply collapse."
None of these moves would help the new government tackle what remains its most massive problem: security. The insurgency is holding up virtually all progress in Iraq. And it cannot be fought solely by military means.
Allawi suggested that the new government should also continue talking to "the fringes of the insurgents." He explained that he began doing this because "I wanted to get the hard core of the insurgency operating in a vacuum and isolate them completely by getting to the fringes and rectifying things by readdressing the de-Baathification issue."
Shiite restraint has been extraordinary. But political mastery lies not simply in restraint. Shiites must actively shape a stable new order in Iraq, one that creates political and economic space for all. That would be a revolution for Iraq and the entire Arab world. And the Shiite moment would turn into the Shiite model.