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The Sunni Shiite Wars

There is little evidence that the Bush administration and its military and intelligence arms have the desire, the subtlety or the ruthlessness to foment sectarian war. Indeed, they claim they are fighting the real author of sectarian violence, al-Qaida's anointed leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
by Martin Walker
UPI Editor
Washington DC (UPI) Feb 09, 2006
Most of the headlines over King Abdullah of Jordan's visit to the White House this week concentrated on the joint remarks by the king and President Bush that tried to calm the sudden firestorm over the Danish newspaper's cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

But the previous evening, over a quiet dinner at the White House, the issue that was on the king's mind was once again the looming threat he sees of an emergent "Shia crescent."

The geography of the Shiite sect of Islam runs west from its Persian heartland in Iran and into the Arab world through southern Iraq, through Jordan and into Lebanon. It runs south to the sullen Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia, concentrated along the Persian Gulf coast where the oil happens to lie, into the island of Bahrain that houses the U.S. naval base. And it runs west into Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It does not take much imagination to see the potential for the emergence of a Shiite empire, based on the oil wealth of Iraq and Iran, defended by an Iranian nuclear weapon, and looking to the 'liberation' of its long-suffering co-religionists in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf.

In reality, the ethnic difference between Persians and Arabs may prove more important than the Shiite religious bond. But the prospect of a Sunni-Shiite sectarian war looms very close in Iraq, where intense security measures were deployed this week to protect the Shiite celebration of their Ashura holy day.

In Karbala, the traditional center of the faith, 8,000 troops and police, plus another 2,000 undercover security forces, were on guard to protect the Shiite pilgrims who commemorated the martyrdom of Hussein and his 87 warriors who died fighting hopeless odds 1,400 years ago. This fight at Karbala was the event that launched the Sunni-Shiite divide.

It was a battle for the mantle of the Prophet Mohammed. Imam Hussein was his grandson and for the Shiite, his rightful heir. But Mohammed's father-in-law seized power, and when Hussein and his family refused their allegiance, besieged them in Karbala and slaughtered them all -- including three Christians, says legend, who joined Hussein's force, which is why Christians in Iraq are usually welcomed at the Ashura commemoration.

Unlike the wave of bombings two years ago that killed 180 Iraqi Shiites, Ashura was relatively calm in Iraq Thursday. But at least 23 Shiites died in a bombing attack on a Shiite religious procession in Hangu, north-west Pakistan. And 5 people also died Thursday in Sunni-Shiite fighting in Herat, western Afghanistan, and Shiite mosques were burned. The Herat police chief, Nisar Ahmad Paikar, said the fighting broke out at an Ashura gathering after a group of Sunnis accused Shiites of ripping up a sacred flag.

In this context, the Sunni Arab alarm at the resurgence of Shiite self-confidence and ambition as it solidifies its political authority in Iraq is growing fast. But it grows along with the suspicion that the Bush administration contains some ruthless apostles of realpolitik who think that one way to manage the clash of civilizations would be to let the Shiite-Sunni antagonism deteriorate into sectarian war.

This line of thinking has something of a pedigree in the United States. Back in 1941 when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the then Senator (and later President) Harry Truman quipped "I hope they both lose."

Henry Kissinger was said to have echoed those sentiments in private during the vicious Iran-Iraq war that bled and impoverished both countries during the 1980s. And it is a matter of historic record that the U.S. did indeed help both sides, providing satellite intelligence to the Iraqis while also secretly negotiating to provide arms to Iran in exchange for hostages held by Iranian-backed terrorists in Lebanon.

There is little evidence that the Bush administration and its military and intelligence arms have the desire, the subtlety or the ruthlessness to foment sectarian war. Indeed, they claim they are fighting the real author of sectarian violence, al-Qaida's anointed leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Their prime exhibit is a computer disc containing a letter in which Zarqawi in the first year of the Iraqi insurgency reported back to al-Qaida leaders that he feared the uprising was failing and that the only way to ignite it would be to destabilize the country through sectarian war, a strategy that he found wholly congenial because of the loathing he expressed for the Shiites.

"(They are) the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy and the penetrating venom," Zarqawi wrote, according to the U.S. intelligence account. "Shi'ism is the looming danger and the true challenge. They are the enemy. Beware of them. Fight them."

"These Shia in our opinion are the key to change. I mean that targeting and hitting them in (their) religious, political and military depth will provoke them to show the Sunnis their rabies ... and bare the teeth of the hidden rancor working in their breasts," he went on.

"If we succeed in dragging them (the Shiites) into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger and annihilating death at the hands of these Sabeans (a tribe regarded as non-believers). Despite their weakness and fragmentation, the Sunnis are the sharpest blades, the most determined and the most loyal when they meet those Batinis (heretics), who are a people of treachery and cowardice," Zarqawi wrote.

Many Arabs, and some Western observers, question the authenticity of this letter. But in late 2004, the imprisoned but influential Islamist cleric (and an old friend and mentor to Zarqawi) published a pamphlet which denounced this tactic as "a dwarfing" of the noble goals of jihad, and also denounced Zarqawi's tactic of suicide bombings and videotaped beheadings -- a clear implication that he thought Zarqawi was behind it.

And now Sunni clerics like Harith al-Dhari, head of the influential Sunni Muslim Clerics Association, accuse the Shiite Badr Brigades of "a campaign of killings of preachers of mosques and worshippers." Meanwhile the Shiites accuse the Sunni of killing their clerics, and al-Qaida issues statements to al-Jazeera claiming that the sectarian bombings attacks were "an American plot aimed at provoking sectarian conflict between Muslims in Iraq."

But the blame and the counter-accusations are all of less significance than the underlying reality of the empowerment of the long-suppressed Shiites of Iraq. This means that the pivotal strategic result of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime has been to transform Iraq from being the traditional Arab bulwark against Shiite Iran into a Shiite-controlled neighbor. To King Abdullah and his fellow Sunni rulers, their cause has suffered a historic defeat, and its implications are being measured in blood in Afghan and Pakistani cities as the Shiite crescent takes ominous shape.

Source: United Press International

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