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Walker's World: A Sunni-Shiite Civil War?

File photo of Iraqi Shiite muslims celebrating their party's victory inside Buratha mosque in Baghdad. AFP photo by Marwan Naamani.

Washington (UPI) Aug 22, 2005
The smart money in Washington says that the Iraqis will sooner or later haggle their way to a deal on the constitution. This is because the smart money thinks that the only deal-breaking issue is not about women's rights or Islamic law and federalism; the deal-breaker, as always, is about money.

In Iraq this really means that the deal-breaker is about oil. The hand of providence has so arranged matters that the oil of Iraq is to be found either in the south, in the lands of the Shiites, or in the north, in the lands claimed by the Kurds. There is almost no oil in the Sunni triangle.

Sunni leaders know this. They have also recognized the new reality that the traditional Sunni dominance that prevailed under the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire and the in the years of Saddam Hussein's al-Takriti clan have gone forever. Consequently, they also understand that to obtain any share of the oil wealth that is now within the control of the Shiite and the Kurds, the Sunni must remain part of a unified Iraq.

But there is another reason why the smart money may well be right, and the Sunni are likely -- eventually -- to strike a deal. This reason is based on the suspicion, the mistrust and the gullibility for conspiracy theories that sometimes appear to be encoded into the very genes of the region.

The Middle East believes in conspiracies, in intrigue, in betrayal, and in the deep, deep cunning of the West. How else can a good Muslim explain the long dominance of the heathen and malevolent Christians over the faithful sons of Allah?

The new suspicion is based on the widespread concern that Iraq could be drifting into a civil war between Sunni and Shiite. This is usually attributed to a dark plot by al-Qaida's man in Iraq, the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in a CD message that he supposedly wrote to Osama bin Laden, that was intercepted in January last year in the backpack of a courier who was arrested while trying to cross the border into Iran.

At the time, the intercepted message, which was full of despair at the lack of Islamic opposition to the American-led occupation, heartened U.S. intelligence. But the message went on to say that the only way to spur the lazy Iraqis into fulfilling their Islamic duty by fighting the Anglo-American Crusaders was to plunge the country into civil war.

"So the solution, and only God knows, is that we need to bring the Shiites into the battle," the al-Zarqawi letter said. "It is the only way to prolong the duration of the fight between the infidels and us."

And after the spate of targeted bombings against Shiite crowds and neighborhoods, and the deliberate assassinations of Shiite clerics and community leaders, it began to seem this summer that al-Zarqawi might be succeeding, and that Shiite leaders were losing control of their infuriated followers who wanted to strike back against the Sunni.

The civil war theory even became official, when Sheikh Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, a prominent Shiite cleric and a member of the Iraqi parliament (who is very close to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme Shiite spiritual leader), told the national assembly last month: "What is truly happening, and what shall happen, is clear: a war against the Shiites."

"I am very keen to preserve the Sunni blood that would be shed due to the irrational acts of some of their leaders, who do not see that they are leading the country into civil war," he told the national assembly," Sheikh Jalal went on, in his formal warning to the Sunni.

Doubtless a civil war would help al-Qaida produce even more mayhem and bloodshed in Iraq, and maybe accelerate the withdrawal of the American troops and their allies, which could be claimed as some kind of grim victory for an Islamic resistance. It might ratchet up the level of dislocation and desperation among Iraqis and drive many more young men into al-Qaida's hands.

But would this be worth a civil war, in which Iraqi Sunni and Shiite fight it out in the slums of Sadr City?

Some commentators, particularly those who are usually the most critical of U.S. foreign policy, have been skeptical about this talk of civil war, at least as an arm of al-Qaida's policy.

"Odd, isn't it? There never has been a civil war in Iraq. I have never heard a single word of animosity between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq," wrote Robert Fisk in the British newspaper, The Independent. Fisk is a powerful critic of Israel who has become something of a hero on the liberal-left in the United States and Europe for his forthright opposition to the Iraq war.

"Al-Qaida has never uttered a threat against Shias -- even though al-Qaida is a Sunni-only organization," Fisk went on. "Yet for weeks, the American occupation authorities have been warning us about civil war, have even produced a letter said to have been written by an al-Qaida operative, advocating a Sunni-Shiite conflict. Normally sane journalists have enthusiastically taken up this theme. Civil war. Somehow I don't believe it."

"I think of the French OAS in Algeria in 1962, setting off bombs among France's Muslim Algerian community," Fisk added. "I recall the desperate efforts of the French authorities to set Algerian Muslim against Algerian Muslim which led to half a million dead souls."

These suspicions that it was less al-Qaida than their enemies who were fomenting an Iraqi civil war have become a commonplace of the conspiracy theorists of the Arab media. The same musings are now being heard from Arab diplomats in London and Washington, and indeed, the ruthless code of Realpolitik might suggest that the interests of the United States and the West are best served by a full-scale civil war between Sunni and Shiite all across the Middle East, and not just in Iraq.

It begins to look as if the main result of President Bush's Iraq war will not be the democratization of the Middle East, but the creation of the Shiite empire. Dominated by Tehran, and defended by an Iranian nuclear weapon, such a Shiite empire would control the oil reserves of Iran and Iraq, and dominate the Straits of Hormuz, through which the world's tankers and its oil supplies must pass.

Since it begins to seem that European diplomacy and American threats might not suffice to dissuade Iran from developing its nuclear technology, what other recourse would the West have but to the classical tactic of worried imperialists: divide and rule.

If the Shiite look like dominating the Middle East, then support the Sunni. If Iran has a nuclear weapon and credible delivery system in the Shihab-3 missile, then the Sunni will be all the more desperate for a nuclear deterrent of their own. If the Shiite Ayatollahs of Iran look like getting too powerful, then Realpolitik would propose stirring up a Sunni jihad against them.

To the conspiracy theorists of the Middle East, nothing would be more logical than a deep-laid Western plot to bring about a civil war to the death between Sunni and Shiite, with Saudi money and Egyptian manpower and Pakistani technology all rallying together against those terrible alien Persians and their heretical Shiite hirelings.

Better for the Islamic world to exhaust and even obliterate itself, runs this theory, than that it unite against the Christians and Jews. It could be just like the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, of which Dr Henry Kissinger is supposed to have expressed the wish that the war might never end, and that both sides lose. (There is no evidence that he ever said this, but that never stopped a Middle Eastern conspiracy theory.)

The problem is that the Middle East is the home of the zero-sum game, in which whenever one side wins, the other must lose, while the West has built the entire capitalist system upon the theory that the standard transaction ought to be one with which both sides are content. The experience of capitalism, which is now carved deep into the DNA of Western culture, means that the principle of win-win is not only much to be preferred to one of winners and losers.

That is why the smart money in Washington remains indefatigably optimistic. It knows that it is in both Sunni and Shiite interest to have a stable, prosperous, and federal Iraq, pumping out lots of oil at $65 a barrel. But the question remains, if Abu Musab al-Zarqawi of al-Qaida is really trying to foment a civil war in Iraq between Sunni and Shia, who would benefit, and on whose side would he really be?

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