The chaos of post-war Iraq is thousands of miles away from this basement apartment on Robbinstone in the wilds of Scarborough, as unlikely a place as any to be meeting an emissary of one of Iraq's leading ayatollahs. But in multicultural, multi-ethnic Toronto, anything's possible.The invitation from Alaa Alturej, a representative of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), had come in an e-mail missive a couple of weeks earlier. SCIRI is one of many Iraqi opposition groups currently jockeying for power in post-Saddam Iraq.
After exchanging pleasantries, a smiling Alturej escorts me past the kitchen and up a short flight of stairs into a room where a pot of Arabic tea is steeping on a glass-topped coffee table.
To the right is a giant TV screen on which the United Arab Emirates-based all-news Abu Dhabi TV is being pumped in via satellite.
On the mantle of the fireplace, which seems little used, sits a photo of Alturej with Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, SCIRI's spiritual leader, taken at a religious seminary in Qum, Iran.
But it's the portrait on the far wall of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the one-time leader of all Shiites, who inspired the Iranian revolution - and the wrath of the Yanks during the U.S. hostage crisis - that catches my attention. "A great man," says Alturej, who's quick to add that an Iranian-style revolution is not what SCIRI has in mind for Iraq. "There's no reason to fear."
Alturej says SCIRI wants the international community to play the major role in rebuilding Iraq.
Judging by the names on the business cards scattered throughout his apartment - the head of the Iraq file at Foreign Affairs and deputy director of the department's Middle East division among them - Alturej has been doing a lot of convincing on that front in Ottawa. "We want Canadians to stand with Iraqis," he says. "We hope they're going to push the UN."
The Shiites themselves are divided, though. And the Americans, of course, have their own ideas.***
Alturej, who arrived in Canada in 1995, is among the thousands of Shiite Muslims who fled southern Iraq after the first Gulf War in 1991. He is soft-spoken and polite to a fault, but reluctant to get into too many details about his past except to divulge that he spent the next four years in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War.
After the war, the Shiites were encouraged by the first President Bush to take up arms and overthrow a weakened Saddam. But within 12 hours, Bush Senior changed his mind, ordering his troops to stand down when Saddam sent helicopter gunships to put down the Shiite rebellion.
Alturej remembers the scene in Basra. "Saddam's soldiers were driving their tanks over us," he says.
If 91 showed anything, it was that the U.S. feared a Shiite Muslim-led Iraq more than than one led by the devil Saddam Hussein himself.
Fast-forward to the months leading up to Gulf War, Part II. SCIRI was the main Shiite faction represented at the U.S.-sponsored opposition conference in London, England, last December. Alturej was one of the delegates.
But relations with the U.S. have since become strained. SCIRI recently boycotted the U.S.-sponsored leadership conference in Ur. Particularly unnerving for the Bush administration are SCIRI's close ties to Iran, which is on the U.S.'s "axis of evil" nuclear hit list. SCIRI has its headquarters in Tehran.
A February 2003 report prepared for Congress by Middle Eastern affairs specialist Kenneth Katzman suggests that al-Hakim and his family, most notably his brother Abd al-Aziz, were leaders of the Da'wa (Islamic Call) party allegedly responsible for the December 1983 attacks on the U.S. embassy in Kuwait.
Iran's Revolutionary Guard continues to provide SCIRI's 10,000-strong Badr Corp with weapons, according to Katzman's report.
"I don't know if I would trust a religious party with a military apparatus that might challenge the territorial integrity of Iraq," says Jans Hanssen, a professor in the department of Near and Middle Eastern studies at U of T.
For the U.S., al-Hakim may be unavoidable, the lesser of many proverbial evils.
Ayatollah Abdel Majid al-Khoei, who observers say represented the U.S.'s best hope for a moderate Shiite movement in Iraq, was gunned down in Najaf on April 10 after his return from exile.
"The Shia community is very divided and not very organized," says John Thompson of the Mackenzie Institute, who also downplays the importance of SCIRI's Iran connection. "You have to remember," he says, "that the Shias in Iran are Persians. Iraqis are Arabs."
Various other religious and tribal factions to consider are the Kurds, Sunnis, Turkomen and Assyrians, says U of T political scientist Paul Kingston.
"It's not simply a Shia question," Kingston says. ***
Once again in Alturej's basement apartment, we're back to the portrait of Khomeini. Military analyst Gwynne Dyer has suggested the West should be prepared for the kind of Shia-led protests that led to the ouster of the U.S.-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi in 78.
Back then, Shias spilling into Tehran's streets were gunned down until the shah's soldiers themselves could not take the bloodshed.
"There will also be terrorism," Dyer predicted in one of his recent columns. "And given U.S. paranoia about terrorists and the Bush administration's tendency to lump all its Arab and Muslim enemies together, the Shia extremists will get what they are seeking sooner or later. One massacre and then they are in business."
Alturej remembers 1991, when "the U.S. turned its back on us." He butts out his cigarette before continuing. "There's some misunderstanding in the Western world. They think every Islamic government is going to be like Saudi Arabia or Iran. Ayatollah al-Hakim believes in dialogue."
Yes. But he has also warned that any prolonged U.S. occupation of Iraq could lead to a "religious war... that will set the Middle East ablaze."