war makes U.S. plight even worse
Backing Israel has caught it up in the
Shia-Sunni conflict - which could determine the outcome of the Iraq venture.
by Trudy Rubin
Sun., Aug. 20, 2006
If you want to understand
the wider repercussions of the war between Hezbollah and Israel, buy a
brilliant and very readable new book called The Shia Revival: How Conflicts
Within Islam Will Shape the Future.
The author, Vali Nasr,
is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and
a top expert on Shiite Islam and the historic conflict between Shiite
and Sunni Muslims. He just briefed President Bush on internal Iraqi religious
and political dynamics. One can only wish the meeting had come three years
The United States
is now caught in the middle of the Shiite-Sunni conflict in Baghdad, and
the Lebanon war has worsened the precarious U.S. position. This sectarian
struggle will determine the outcome of America's Iraq venture. Nasr believes
it will shape the future of the entire Middle East.
Shiites make up only
10 percent to 15 percent of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims. U.S. Mideast
policy has traditionally been focused on Sunni countries led by Arab allies
in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. But as Nasr points out: "In the Islamic
heartland from Lebanon to Pakistan, there are roughly as many Shias as
there are Sunnis," and around the geopolitically sensitive Persian Gulf,
Shiites constitute 89 percent of the population.
Nasr gives a fascinating
short course on the historic differences between Shiites and Sunnis, which
stem from a dispute over who were the rightful heirs to the Prophet Muhammad.
The Shiites believe his direct descendants should have inherited the mantle,
starting with his cousin and son-in-law Ali. Sunnis endorsed the Prophet's
companions and slaughtered Ali's son Hussayn, whose death precipitated
a historic Shiite embrace of martyrs. But the differences go deeper, to
the essence of theology. Sunnis emphasized order and coming to terms with
secular rulers. Shiites are searching for justice and look to clerics
rather than caliphs or kings for guidance.
Before 1993, the only
country ruled by Shiites was Persian Iran. Shiites were marginalized and
persecuted in the Sunni Arab world and disdained by Sunni fundamentalists
as apostates. Then came the war in Iraq, which altered the power balance
in the Middle East.
When the United States
toppled Saddam Hussein, it upended a regime whose Sunni leaders repressed
a predominately Shiite population. U.S. leaders thought Iraq was dominated
by a secular middle class. They believed an Iraqi democracy led by elected
Shiite officials would encourage Iranian Shiites to overthrow their regime.
Reality bit hard.
Iraq's Shiite majority was predominantly religious. Shiite political leaders,
who had spent their exile years in Tehran, would not drop their ties with
By removing Saddam,
the United States made Shiite Iran the strongest power in the region.
Urged on by their ayatollahs, Iraq's Shiite majority voted in the second
Shiite-led government in the region, dominated by religious parties. This
Shiite revival helped other minority Shiite movements in the region, such
as Lebanon's Hezbollah, to strengthen their position. They were aided
by Iran, and - in Hezbollah's case - by elections.
Nasr believes this
Shiite ascendancy need not have been a negative for the region. Iraq's
preeminent Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is a moderate who
accepts the idea of inclusive, constitutional government (with a strong
role for clerics in the background). Such a religious/constitutional model
could have set a new trend.
But U.S. missteps
in Iraq opened the door to a virulent Sunni insurgency that deliberately
targeted Shiite civilians. The late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his al-Qaeda
followers in Iraq wanted a civil war and used hatred of Shiites to recruit
Sunni Arab jihadis.
Iraq's Shiites have
grown increasingly impatient with the inability of the United States to
curb Sunni attacks on their civilians. Many Shiites suspect that the United
States, nervous about Iranian influence, is turning against them and moving
back toward its traditional support of Arab Sunnis.
Sistani's calls to
refrain from revenge are heeded less and less by his followers; the Shiite
militia led by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has murdered innumerable
Sunni civilians and is growing in strength.
Enter the war in Lebanon.
Iraqi Shiites, Nasr
told me, have close ties to their co-religionists in Lebanon and are shocked
by the U.S. support for Israeli bombing of Shiite areas. "Now, Iraqis
see the United States as anti-Shia in Lebanon," Nasr says. "We are close
to losing the Shia in Iraq."
He worries that Iraqi
Shiites will believe that the United States has turned its back on them
and will now turn to Hezbollah's Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah as their model
rather than the moderate Sistani. If this happens, Shiite militias will
soon start attacking U.S. troops, which would make a U.S. exit from Iraq
After that exit, a
Shiite-Sunni civil war would explode into full force in Iraq, threatening
Sunni regimes in the region and driving oil prices beyond the stratosphere.
Nasr argues that the
United States would have been (and still would be) smarter to engage with
Iran over Iraq and Lebanon. That means putting our demands on the table,
but being cognizant of theirs. "This might create a certain stability
that allows you to contain some of these trends," he says. "The moment
of opportunity," he adds, "is fast closing." Read his book and you'll
grasp what that means.
This article also
appeared in The Baltimore Sun on Friday, August 22, 2006.