The Iraqi Baath Party was a proponent of secularism. This attitude was maintained despite the fact that the mass of Iraqis are deeply religious. At the same time, the Baathists did not hesitate to exploit religion as a mobilizing agent; and from the first months of the war with Iran, prominent Baathists made a public show of attending religious observances. Iraq's President Saddam Hussein was depicted in prayer in posters displayed throughout the country. Moreover, the Baath provided large sums of money to refurbish important mosques; this has proved a useful tactic in encouraging support from the Shias.
Since the 1980's, the Baath Government reportedly attempted to eliminate the senior Shi'a religious leadership (the Mirjaiyat) through killings, disappearances, and summary executions.
Despite supposed legal protection of religious equality, the Baath regime repressed severely the Shi'a clergy and those who follow the Shi'a faith. Forces from the Intelligence Service (Mukhabarat), General Security (Amn al-Amm), the Military Bureau, Saddam's Commandos (Fedayeen Saddam), and the Ba'ath Party have killed senior Shi'a clerics, desecrated Shi'a mosques and holy sites (particularly in the aftermath of the 1991 civil uprising), arrested tens of thousands of Shi'a, interfered with Shi'a religious education, prevented Shi'a adherents from performing their religious rites, and fired upon or arrested Shi'a who sought to take part in their religious processions. Security agents reportedly are stationed at all the major Shi'a mosques and shrines, and search, harass, and arbitrarily arrest worshipers.
Reports of military operations against Shi'a civilians also increased notably in the summer of 1998 after the killings of Ayatollahs Ali al-Gharawi and Sheikh al-Borojourdi. In numerous incidents during 1998, security forces injured and summarily executed Shi'a civilians, burned Shi'a homes, confiscated land belonging to Shi'a, and arbitrarily arrested and detained scores of Shi'a.
In January 1999, according to a report from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), security officials reportedly arrested Sheikh Awas, imam of the Nasiriyah city mosque. Shortly after the arrest of Sheikh Awas, hundreds of Shi'a congregation members reportedly marched on the security directorate to demand that Awas be released immediately. Security forces allegedly opened fire on the unarmed crowd with automatic weapons and threw hand grenades. Five persons reportedly were killed, 11 wounded, and 300 arrested.
The Human Rights Organization in Iraq (HROI) reported that 1,093 Shi'a were arrested in June 1999 in Basrah alone. The Iraqi National Congress reports that tanks from the Hammourabi Republican Guard division attacked the towns of Rumaitha and Khudur in June 1999 after residents protested the systematic unequal distribution of food and medicine to the detriment of the Shi'a. Fourteen villagers were killed, over 100 persons were arrested, and 40 homes were destroyed. In June 1999, SCIRI reported that 160 homes in the Abul Khaseeb district near Basra were destroyed.
Baath security forces also forced Shi'a inhabitants of the southern marshes to relocate to major southern cities and to areas along the Iranian border. Former Special Rapporteur van Der Stoel described this practice in his February 1999 report, adding that many other persons have been transferred to detention centers and prisons in central Iraq, primarily in Baghdad. The Government reportedly also continued to move forcibly Shi'a populations from the south to the north to replace Kurds, Turkomen, and Assyrians who had been expelled forcibly from major cities.
The military also continued its water-diversion and other projects in the south. The Government's claim that the drainage is part of a land reclamation plan to increase the acreage of arable land and spur agricultural production is given little credence. Hundreds of square miles have been burned in military operations. The former Special Rapporteur noted the devastating impact that draining the marshes has had on the culture of the Shi'a marsh Arabs. SCIRI claims to have captured government documents that detail the destructive intent of the water diversion program and its connection to "strategic security operations," economic blockade, and "withdrawal of food supply agencies."
The Baath Government's diversion of supplies in the south limited the Shi'a population's access to food, medicine, drinking water, and transportation. According to the former Special Rapporteur and opposition sources, thousands of persons in Nasiriyah and Basra provinces were denied rations that should have been supplied under the U.N. oil-for-food program. In these provinces and in Amarah province, access to food allegedly is used to reward regime supporters and silence opponents. Shi'a groups report that, due to this policy, the humanitarian condition of Shi'a in the south continued to suffer despite a significant expansion of the oil-for-food program.
By the end of Saddam's regime, the following government restrictions on religious rights remained in effect: restrictions on communal Friday prayer by Shi'a; restrictions on Shi'a mosque libraries loaning books; a ban on the broadcast of Shi'a programs on government-controlled radio or television; a ban on the publication of Shi'a books, including prayer books and guides; a ban on many funeral processions other than those organized by the Baath Government; a ban on other Shi'a funeral observances, such as gatherings for Koran reading; and the prohibition of certain processions and public meetings commemorating Shi'a holy days. the Baath Government requires that speeches by Shi'a imams in mosques be based upon government-provided material that attacks fundamentalist trends.