The Shiites are fast filling the power vacuum left by the ouster of Saddam Hussein — and some fear their dominance of postwar Iraqi politics could lead to an Islamic theocracy like the one next door in Shiite-dominated Iran.
Long repressed under Saddam's Sunni-dominated government and representing 60 percent of Iraq's population of 24 million, the Shiites have divided their religious loyalties between at least three leaders. Yet their opposition to a prolonged U.S. presence on Iraqi soil appears uniform, and some look to Iran as a model.
"The Iranian experience proved to be successful until now and I hope Iraq will be the same," said Naji Abdel-Razzak, a 45-year-old civil servant in Karbala.
Added Kathem al-Nasiri, a cleric from the Hawza seminary in Karbala: "We want to establish an Islamic, Shiite state, the same as what happened in Iran" — though he doubted the United States would permit that.
Thousands of Shiites demonstrated against the United States in Karbala on Wednesday, carrying banners with messages such as "No to America, no to Israel, yes to Islam." Their brethren recited the final prayers of a fervent religious pilgrimage that dramatized the potential for Shiite power in Iraq.
CBS News Correspondent John Roberts reports that White House officials admit it was painful to watch, but they say the anti-American protests are just part of the deal that comes with democracy.
In other developments:
U.S. commanders insist that the vocal anti-Americanism and Iranian influence are not an immediate threat to coalition forces. But reports that Iran seeks to influence Iraqi Shiites are setting off alarms in Washington.
"We have concerns about this matter, about Iranian agents in Iraq," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, responding to reports that Iranian-trained agents have crossed into southern Iraq to promote Shiite clerics and advance Iranian interests. "We've made our points clear to the Iranians."
The power of the Shiites is one of the wildcards in postwar Iraq. The Washington Post reports that the strength of Shiite leadership is surprising to American officials, some of whom fear a fundamentalist regime may replace Saddam's brutal, but secular, state.
The pilgrimage to mourn the Prophet Muhammad's grandson was organized by a center of Shiite learning known as the Hawza al-Ilmiya — the same organization that since Saddam's ouster has been sending out volunteers to guard banks, get power plants back on line and set up checkpoints.
Despite bitter internal differences, the Shiites were able to pull off the pilgrimage to Karbala on short notice and thus far without violence.
At noon Wednesday, throngs of pilgrims began the final prayers of the pilgrimage, after which people were expected to begin leaving the city.
While U.S. officials estimated the crowd at a million, one Shiite spokesman insisted it was much higher.
Abu Eslam al-Saqir, a spokesman of Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the biggest Iraqi opposition group, estimated the religious faithful at well over 4 million.
"The huge gathering does carry a political and religious message for everybody, including the Americans," he said Wednesday, speaking from Tehran, the Iranian capital. "It means: Iraqis are standing on their soil and expressing what they love and what they want. People love Islam. However, no Islamic or U.S.-installed administration could be imposed on the Iraqi people."