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BACKGROUND REPORT - March 27, 2003: Shiites in Iraq - 2003-03-26

This is a VOA Special English Background Report.

On Tuesday, British forces outside Basra, in southern Iraq, reported signs of a civilian rebellion against the rule of Saddam Hussein. Iraq called the charges "lies." Basra is the second largest city in Iraq, after the capital. The British fired artillery at Iraqi forces in the city who they said were shelling civilians. Wednesday, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair said he believed there was what he called a "limited form of uprising." But Arab television had conflicting reports.

Some coalition officials have been hopeful that Iraqi civilians in the south would attack troops loyal to the president. The majority of the people in southern Iraq are Shiite Muslims. Shiites are the largest minority group in Islam. However, Shiites are the majority of the population in Iraq. Yet they are not represented in the government. Saddam Hussein and his officials are Sunni, as are most Muslims. The Shiites often come into conflict with the ruling Baath party.

Outside of Baghdad, Shiites live mainly in the southern "no-fly" area. The United States and Britain established this area to protect the Shiites after the nineteen-ninety-one Gulf war.

Shiites have said the United States and its allies must help them gain power in Iraq. Yet Shiite leaders do not completely trust the United States. They remember what happened during and after the Gulf War twelve years ago. The United States urged the Iraqi opposition to rebel. The Shiites did that shortly after the war. But they were poorly equipped. They received no American help. Iraqi forces quickly crushed the rebellion. The Republican Guards killed thousands of Shiites.

Many Shiites have not welcomed American troops back into Iraq. The United States knows that the memory of that failed rebellion is one of the main reasons why.

Iraq's main Shiite opposition group is based in Iran. The leader of that group says coalition forces are welcome as long as they help Iraqis oust Saddam Hussein. But after that, he says, they must leave.