WASHINGTON - Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims, victims of oppression and betrayal, are waiting in wary passivity for American and British forces to topple Saddam Hussein, but there are signs they might eventually take up arms against their would-be liberators.
Representing 60 percent of Iraqis, Shiites have long been shut out of political power by Iraq's Sunni elite and repeatedly brutalized since Hussein seized power in 1979. Most are quietly eager for his regime to be destroyed, exiles say.
But they remain bitter that the West refused to back their uprising against Hussein after the 1991 Persian Gulf war when then-President George Bush encouraged them to rebel, and they share a widespread Iraqi distrust of occupying powers. At least one prominent Shiite exile leader has warned that an American-led military occupation could meet violent resistance.
"The Iraqi nation will resist and use any legitimate means against foreigners' occupation of Iraq, should they decide to remain," Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the Tehran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and a member of a much-revered family of Shiite clerics, told a news conference last week. "Legitimate means can include force and weapons," said al-Hakim, who has met in the past with American officials.
Al-Hakim's armed militia, the Badr Corps, recently entered Iraq from its base in Iran, drawing a sharp warning last Friday from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that any forces not under operational control of U.S. commanders would be viewed as "a potential threat."
The wariness of the Shiites is a key measure of the challenge ahead for the Bush administration as it seeks to use a "liberated" Iraq as a platform for its long-term goals of political reform, economic progress and peaceful coexistence throughout the Middle East.
President Bush has repeatedly sought to reassure Iraqis that U.S. troops will stay no longer than is necessary to disarm Iraq and encourage the emergence of a new, representative leadership that won't threaten the country's neighbors. The administration wants Iraqis themselves to lead government ministries and bring members of Hussein's regime to trial for past atrocities.
But U.S. officials say they don't know how long a U.S. military presence would last, and Bush's vision for the Middle East argues for keeping troops in Iraq long enough to ensure there won't be a slide toward instability after they are withdrawn.
For now, Shiites are "cautiously watching, trying to keep their heads down," said David Mack of the Middle East Institute in Washington, a former U.S. ambassador in the Persian Gulf.
Shiites are in a dilemma, said Ray Takeyh, director of studies at the Near East and South Asia Center at the National Defense University here. "While they despise Saddam, they have concerns and qualms about the occupation and how they will be represented in a system the U.S. wants to create."
"I think the Shia and Sunni in due course will display resistance to American occupation," Takeyh said.
The invasion has failed to produce the jubilation among Shiites that Washington hawks predicted. Hussein's paramilitary forces have used Shiite communities in southern Iraq as strongholds to battle American and British troops. Officials attribute the passivity in large part to fear of retribution from Hussein loyalists.
Having seen their 1991 uprising crushed, Shiites are unlikely to join in a fight against Hussein "as long as there are Baath Party security people or military authorities present," said Graham E. Fuller, former vice chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council and author of the recently published The Future of Political Islam.
According to reports from the ground, American and British troops in recent days have been welcomed in a few southern villages and in Najaf, a southern city that is one of the holiest sites of Shiite Islam because it contains the burial site of Imam Ali, son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad.
Even though memories remain fresh of how Najaf was damaged and looted by Hussein's forces during the 1991 crackdown in which tens of thousands of Shiites were killed, American forces will have to cope with and try to live down the Shiites' collective sense of betrayal by the United States.
In addition, American troops will have to tread carefully there to avoid appearing to desecrate symbols of Shiite culture and religion, said Rahman al-Jebouri, a Washington-based spokesman for the Uprising Committee, an anti-Hussein exile group.
"It's not easy for me, as a liberal Iraqi, to see the fight in that holy city," said al-Jebouri, one of a number of Iraqi exiles working with the State Department to help plan for Iraq's future.
An American military spokesman said yesterday that U.S. forces refused to return fire from Hussein loyalists who had barricaded themselves inside the domed mausoleum of Imam Ali. And U.S. forces have encircled but not yet entered Karbala, another holy containing the shrine of Hussein, Ali's son.