The Sunni-Shiite cold war -- or worse

Posted: Oct 11, 2006 12:01 AM
The Sunni-Shiite cold war -- or worse

Shortly before Iraq finally formed its coalition government this spring, one of that nation's leading Shiite Ayatollahs, Ahmad Al-Baghdadi, gave a televised sermon explaining his views on jihad.

"If the objective and subjective circumstances materialize, and there are soldiers, weapons and money -- even if this means using biological, chemical and bacterial weapons -- we will conquer the world, so that 'There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah' will be triumphant over the domes of Moscow, Washington and Paris," the Ayatollah said in a sermon recorded by The Middle East Media Research Institute.

"This Arab Islamic nation must obtain a nuclear bomb," the Ayatollah said in a subsequent TV interview.

Now, it is an ironic fact that among those who ought to be praying most fervently for the success of the teetering U.S. experiment in democracy in Iraq are the non-democratic leaders of nearby Sunni Arab regimes.

Last week in Cairo, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice conferred with a group of such leaders from Egypt, Jordan and the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Her agenda included the efforts to restore stability in Iraq and to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Sunni Arab leaders now see these causes as intimately linked -- because they see themselves sinking into a Cold War, or worse, with a Shiite Iran that is exploiting the unrest in Shiite-majority Iraq.

Events this summer intensified longstanding Sunni Arab anxiety about Iran's intentions. In Iraq, even after the formation of the coalition government, the level of sectarian violence exploded -- driven in large part by Iranian-backed Shiite militias. In Lebanon, Iranian-backed Hezbollah launched an unprovoked war against Israel and plunged that nation into chaos.

An unbridled sectarian civil war in Iraq, Sunni Arab leaders fear, could gallop across their borders, with Iran arming local Shiite militants just as it has in Lebanon and Iraq.

Were Iran to secure nuclear weapons, it could sow Shiite revolution with impunity.

The Sunni Arab anxiety about Iraq and Iran is rooted in demographics. Every GCC state is a Sunni monarchy or emirate that governs at least some Shiites. Bahrain, according to the State Department report on religious freedom, has a Shiite majority that has "often resented minority Sunni Muslim rule." Kuwait's Shiite minority is 30 percent; the United Arab Emirates', 15 percent; and Qatar's, 10 percent. Oman, said State, has "a small but significant population of Shiite Muslims concentrated in the capital area and along the country's Batinah coast."

Saudi Arabia's 26.7 million people include 2 million Shiites, mostly concentrated along the Gulf Coast.

As the Iraq war has continued, Sunni leaders have increasingly vocalized their fear of radicalized Shiites. In December 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan warned that Iran was seeking a Shiite Islamic republic in Iraq that could become part of a "Shiite crescent" that would threaten the Arab world.

"Even Saudi Arabia is not immune from this," King Abdullah told The Washington Post. "It would be a major problem. And then that would propel the possibility of a Shiite-Sunni conflict even more, as you're taking it out of the borders of Iraq."

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak put the Sunni fears bluntly. Returning from a tour of the GCC states in April, he spoke with Al-Arabiya TV. "Do you think the Iranian influence is responsible for this critical situation in Iraq?" asked the interviewer.

"Definitely, Iran has influence on the Shiites," said Mubarak. "This is not just talk -- they have many people. The Shiites make up around 65 percent of the Iraqis. There are Shiites in all these countries. It is a very large percentage. The Shiites' loyalty is always to Iran. Most of them are loyal to Iran and not to their countries."

"What will happen in Iraq if the Americans leave today?" the interviewer asked.

"It will be a disaster," said Mubarak. "The war between them will rage more. And many forces will get involved. Iran and others will get involved. It will be a theater for an ugly civil war. Terrorist operations will also rage, not only in Iraq, but also in a number of other places."

If the Sunni Arab regimes want to avert the catastrophe they envision, they should use every means possible to pressure their Sunni co-religionists in Iraq to shut down their insurgency -- before it's too late -- and cut a deal with the coalition government.

The Bush administration has been rightly criticized for woefully miscalculating the difficulty of postwar nation-building in Iraq. It unleashed a struggle for the soul of that country with the likes of Ayatollah Baghdadi. But those who demand a quick U.S. withdrawal could make a graver miscalculation. They may find the ayatollah's acolytes starting wars across the Middle East -- and beyond.