The Shiites -- the Muslim sect that makes up the majority of Iraq -- have been, for the most part, in favor of the U.S.-led invasion. But there are signs that may be changing.
Five American soldiers were killed recently in a gun battle with an armed Shiite mob, and there have been several bombings in the last two weeks that U.S. forces say may have been carried out by Shiites.
Correspondent Bob Simon conducted the first television interview with the young Shiite cleric Sayed Muqtada al-Sadr, who is believed to be behind so much of the trouble.
But first, you'll hear from Hussein Khomeini, one of America's biggest fans among the Shiites. He is the eldest grandson of the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, who despised the Americans.
“Freedom is the essential element and foundation of our religion, and the United States of America stands for freedom,” says Hussein Khomeini, heir to the Khomeini name.
His grandfather, the late-Ayatollah Khomeini, once called America “the Great Satan.” So why has his grandson now come forward to speak to Americans?
“Because those who promote this radical form of Islam have strayed from true Islam, and they’ve have created the foundations of prejudice and religious blindness,” says Khomeini, who decided this summer to leave his home in Iran and flee to Iraq.
He hopes more moderate Shiites here will take charge under the U.S.-led occupation. “It’s certainly made the Iraqi people happy,” says Khomeini, on the American invasion of Iraq. “The destruction of this regime was one of the great blessings of our time, and we hope that God would be grateful to those who made it happen.”
But those who made it happen – namely, the Americans – have had a rough time with the Shiites in the past few decades.
There was the Iranian hostage crisis under the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, in which 52 Americans were held for more than a year. And over the next decade, Shiite militants carried out suicide attacks against American targets throughout the Middle East – at one point, killing 241 American servicemen stationed in Beirut.
However, Khomeini says that even the ayatollah would be disappointed with what has become of Muslim fundamentalism today: “This religion-dominated, theocratic government in Iran has acted very harshly, has gone beyond the worst extremism. And from the point of view of Islam, we reject this form of theocracy.”
The city of Najaf, around 100 miles south of Baghdad, is a sort of "Vatican City" to Shiite Muslims, and has been for a thousand years.
Most of the senior Shiite clerics in Iraq say they agree with Khomeini's view on the separation of mosque and state. But on the streets, it’s a different story. Liquor stores have been attacked, and more and more women are wearing the veil.
That's in no small part because of a Shiite cleric named Muqtada al-Sadr, whose lineage is as impressive as Khomeini's. His father was the late Ayatollah Sadr, grand Ayatollah of Iraq, and his picture is plastered everywhere here alongside that of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Now, Sadr tells Simon that while Saddam, who murdered his father four years ago, may be a snake, so is America: “The little serpent has left, and the great serpent has come.”
“Just because we’re rid of Saddam and the evil Batthists doesn’t mean that the occupation is a good thing,” says Sadr. “Our salvation from Saddam was only with the grace of God.”
But if getting rid of Saddam was a favor of God, why was it that God waited until the Americans came in to do the job?
“All praises to Allah! He works in mysterious ways,” says Sadr.
It's that sort of radical sentiment that has caught many Americans here off guard.
Lt. Col. Chris Conlin's Marines have been in charge of Najaf since the occupation began.
“His opportunity to demonstrate free speech is because of my Marines being here,” says Conlin, responding to Sadr’s comments.
And Sadr’s followers made their opinions known this past summer, when rumor spread that Marines in Najaf had arrested their leader. Thousands of angry Shiites marched on the base.
“That was actually a protest that was organized by Sadr under the false accusation that we had arrested him. And we hadn’t,” says Conlin. “So he bussed in people from Baghdad and Falujah and Mosul and Tikrit and fomented an angry crowd, and tried, I think, to do a little bit of intimidation tactics. And, so we did, too. We’re better at it.”
Conlin’s troops stood down the angry mob with bayonets – there was no bloodshed, no bullets.
An American soldier is killed nearly every day in Iraq, but very little of the violence has come from the Shiites. However, that could all change, according to clerics who say many Iraqi Shiites are just waiting for a fatwa - a religious edict - to take up arms.
“I cannot issue a fatwa - I don’t have the religious authority. I don’t know what’s inside the religious authority’s heart, only God knows,” says Sadr. “He might issue a fatwa for Jihad, or he may not issue a fatwa for Jihad.”
But would he approve of a fatwa issued against the Americans?
“I have to obey this order whatever it might be,” says Sadr. “When the president of America decides to invade a country, shouldn’t people follow his orders? It is the same for us.”
“I think he has some people that are trying to create an Islamic extremist government, very similar to what Iran has,” says Conlin, who doesn’t think they have a chance. “They already went through one dictator. They don't need another one.”
Iraqi Shiites tried once before to get rid of their dictator. It was during the first Gulf War when the first President Bush sent a clear message to the Shiites: “And that is for the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.”
But when the Iraqi Shiites listened and revolted, the American air cover they expected never came. And the U.S. let Saddam use his helicopter gunships to crush the rebellion. Thousands of Shiites were killed, and their mass graves are only now being unearthed.
“It’s important to understand that ultimately they blame Saddam for it because Saddam was the one that came in and killed their people,” says Conlin. “The Americans didn't come in when they thought we were gonna come in … They reminded us of it.”
Sadr reminds his followers every chance he gets, and he says the first Bush Administration feared that if the ’91 uprising had worked to unseat Saddam, Iraq would look a lot like Iran - a Shiite theocracy, which is his dream and America’s nightmare.
“The Americans were never interested in what was best for the Shiites. In fact, America wouldn’t let a Shiite government exist here, except under its occupation, my friend, because of that fear,” says Sadr. “It is America who is afraid of the Shiites, not the Shiites who are afraid of America.”
Now that Saddam is gone, it is only the Americans who are standing between the Shiites and control of the country. And this may be why Shiites are fighting amongst themselves about how “thankful” they really are to the Americans.
Shiite militants may have been behind a car bombing at the Najaf mosque just a week after 60 Minutes II visited there, which targeted and killed a revered ayatollah who supported the U.S. invasion. And back in April, the Ayatollah al-Khoei, who was also friendly toward America, returned from exile in England, only to be hacked to death by a Shiite mob days later.
One of the suspects: Muqtada al-Sadr.
“I condemned this during my Friday sermon, but … I did say we may have acted in a way that lead to this incident, unfortunately,” says Sadr.
Two of his guards were arrested for involvement in the murder. “Just because the majority of Shiites follow me doesn’t mean I’m responsible for every one of their actions,” adds Sadr.
The majority of Shiites in Iraq don’t actually follow him, but there certainly are parts in Iraq where his word is gospel. A Baghdad slum that used to be called Saddam City is a good example of how much has changed in Iraq in the last few months. Once Saddam fell, the 2-3 million Shiites who live here renamed the place Sadr City, after Sadr’s revered and radical father.
Just three days after one of Sadr’s clerics was arrested, a car bomb went off at the Sadr City police station, killing 10 people. That same day, U.S. forces say they were ambushed by an armed mob of Shiites. Two American soldiers were killed, and there were several Shiite casualties.
Even one of America’s biggest Shiite fans admits thid may be only the beginning.
“Look, the enemies of freedom will not let freedom, liberty and democracy be established in Iraq. You’re going to see that their hostilities will become more intensive every day,” says Khomeini.
Is he suggesting, perhaps, that the American people have to get used to the idea that a lot of Americans are going to get killed in Iraq?
"Well, didn’t America suffer casualties in World War I and World War II? It suffered many, many more casualties in those wars,” says Khomeini. “And the result and the legacy of this war in Iraq … that will be even more important.”
Coalition officials have told 60 Minutes II they now think Sadr's followers may have been behind the bombing of the Baghdad hotel last week, in which six Iraqis were killed and 36 injured. U.S. officials acknowledge, however, that arresting Sadr could lead, in their understated words, to "huge unrest."
Copyright 2003 CBS. All rights reserved.