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The Sunni-Shiite Divide

Although the authoritative al-Azhar University of Cairo has declared Shiites (pictured) to be a legitimate form of Islam, Sunni purists like the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and many Salafists believe Shiites to be heretics, and the Shiites have generally been downtrodden and second-class citizens in the Sunni-dominated Arab world. Photo courtesy of AFP.
By Martin Walker
UPI Editor Emeritus
Washington (UPI) Oct 04 2006
For the first time a senior Saudi official has spoken out publicly before a Western audience on the tensions between Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam and acknowledged that the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia "have suffered social and political alienation and discrimination."

But Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Ambassador to the United States and previously for 25 years head of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate, sought to play down fears of a full-scale Shiite-Sunni civil war breaking out in Iraq.

And he also challenged the two most alarmist arguments that have been made so far from Arab leaders about the prospects of a Shiite resurgence. Jordan's King Abdullah has warned that an ominous "Shiite crescent" is emerging, dominated by Iran but including Iraq and Lebanon. And Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has suggested that the real problem is that many Shiites owe their loyalties to Iran rather than to their own countries.

"Those are his views -- not those of the Saudi kingdom," Prince Turki said in the course of a rare question-and-answer session at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Wednesday.

But he added that "Iranian activity in a place like Iraq and Lebanon" is one of the issues that Saudi officials discuss directly with their Iranian counterparts in the course of the new regular consultations between Riyadh and Tehran.

"I am of the view that there will not be a sectarian civil war in Iraq, because in most of Iraq the links and interlinks of Sunni and Shiites go far beyond the efforts to drive them apart," Prince Turki said.

Many Iraqi tribes and clans contain both Sunnis and Shiites, and there are many Sunni-Shiite intermarriages, he noted, and the tribal and clan and personal links cross sectarian lines.

"In practical terms, how could such a civil war happen?" he asked. "It is practically impossible to divide Iraq into sectarian regions. It would mean mass emigration and ethnic cleansing, and a lot of killing between families and tribal groupings."

But Prince Turki made it clear that there was considerable concern in Saudi Arabia about the prospects of such a sectarian war, and the Saudi monarchy has agreed to host a meeting of Sunni and Shiite religious leaders in the holy city of Mecca, under the auspices of the Organization of Islamic Conference, "to address how best to ease the tensions."

Fears of a wider Sunni-Shiite conflict have soared this year. They have been provoked by the waves of deliberate sectarian killings that have been such a dominant feature of Iraq since the bombing by men dressed in police uniform of the 1000-year-old Al-Askariya mosque in the city of Samarra in February.

One of the four most important Shiite shrines, the Shiites believe it is the site where Mohammed al-Mahdi, the 12th and last imam, will return to restore justice after "times of great evil." The militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is called the Mahdi Army in honor of this 12th imam, and over 168 Sunni mosques were attacked by furious Shiites within two days of the bombing.

Until this year's wave of Sunni-Shiite killings, many Iraqis believed with Prince Turki that the two communities were too intertwined, and that the country was too shaped by its long tradition of secular government, for such a sectarian civil war to be possible. But the late al-Qaida leader in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi deliberately targeted Shiites as a way to make Iraq ungovernable with web cast sermons that urged Sunni to "kill the Shiites wherever you find them."

The Sunni-Shiite schism dates back to the founding century of Islam and to its first family's disputes over the succession to the Prophet Mohammed. For the Shiites, the Prophet's son-in-law Ali was the rightful heir and the best interpreter of Mohammed's teachings; the Sunni followed Mohammed's father-in-law Abu Bakr, who became the first Caliph. Although the authoritative al-Azhar University of Cairo has declared Shiites to be a legitimate form of Islam, Sunni purists like the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and many Salafists believe Shiites to be heretics, and the Shiites have generally been downtrodden and second-class citizens in the Sunni-dominated Arab world.

The question of the Shiite minority is acute for Saudi Arabia, since most of the oil wells, refineries and other key facilities are close to the shore of the Persian Gulf, where the Saudi Shiites are concentrated, and where they provide close to half of the labor force in the oil industry.

Prince Turki's acknowledgement in Washington of previous anti-Shiite discrimination in Saudi Arabia reflects the measured progress toward general political reform in the country since the accession of King Abdullah last year and his 'National Dialog' project in which the country's Shiite minority were carefully included.

"The problem in the Kingdom has been recognized and there are efforts now to resolve this. King Abdullah has extended his hand to them (the Shiites) and brought them more into the fold. The effort will continue and may take some time. Things like that often do," Prince Turki said, noting that he had been in the United States as a student in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement, which he saw as a parallel.

Source: United Press International

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The Iraqi government late Tuesday recalled an entire national police brigade from northwest Baghdad for complicity with death squads, a U.S. official said Wednesday. "I don't know what degree any of the leadership knew, but there is clear evidence that there was some complicity in allowing death squad elements to move freely when in fact they were supposed to have been impeding their movement, that perhaps they did not respond as rapidly when reports were made" said Maj. Gen. William Thurman, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.

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