The nineteenth century Ottoman rulers in Baghdad were Sunnis. Sometimes a Baghdad governor would try to gain semi-independence from Istanbul. However, the Sultans, sporadic Westernizers, pulled back and tried, on the French model, to centralize. Though they failed in Egypt, in Iraq they dislodged the Ma’ud Pasha by armed force, and restored the governorship to its subordinate status with relation to the Porte.
Meanwhile, in Karbala, the Shiite elite had, through negotiation, the desire for protection, and mutual interest, made an accord with various powerful gangs. The Shiites did little more than pay lip service to their Ottoman overlords. Finally, a conservative governor in Baghdad had enough of this. Muhammed Nejib Pasha decided to subdue Karbala, in spite of the Iranian warning that Karbala was sacrosanct. Their were reports that the more powerful gangs had gotten out of control, had raped and murdered with impunity, and were disrespectful of the authority of the Shiite clergy. That, at least, is what Nejib Pasha claimed. So he gathered a force of Turks who marched on Karbala in December, 1842. They parleyed with the leaders of Karbala, but the leadership was divided. In the city, the inhabitants gave credence to various millennial dreams and portents. And the gangs, who could look back on successfully repulsing two earlier forces, had reason to think they could resist Nejib. On January 12, 1843, Nejib blasted through the Najab and Khan gates. In the assault on the 13th, the Turks succeeded in gaining entrance to the city. The gang leadership and its mercenary army fled, while the Turks fought street to street. The Turks lost 400 men. The townspeople lost 3,000, with another 2,000 mercenary Arabs dead.
I gained these facts from an excellent little paper by Juan Cole and Moojan Momen, published in 1986 in Past and Present, entitled "Mafia, Mob and Shi`ism in Iraq: The Rebellion of Ottoman Karbala 1824-1843." What is fascinating here -- a sort of Edward Said nightmare of Orientalism enacted before our very eyes -- is that the same social formations, the same vocabulary, and even the same battle formations have emerged under the American occupation. The point, however, isn’t to demonstrate the timelessness of Shiite society, but to demonstrate the continuity between the perceptions of the conquerors – Ottoman and American.
More on the Shiites in my next post.