updated 6/24/2006 1:46:29 PM ET 2006-06-24T17:46:29

To the outside world, the two groups appear to have much in common: Devoutly Muslim, fiercely hostile to Israel and the U.S., and high on Washington’s list of terrorist groups.

Yet al-Qaida in Iraq and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are waging a worsening verbal dispute that threatens to burst into confrontation.

First came a fiery diatribe from al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — just a week before he was killed by a U.S. airstrike — accusing Hezbollah of acting as a protective buffer for Israel.

Hezbollah, generally reserved in its comments on internal Islamic issues, began to react: One of its main political figures told The Associated Press it wasn’t his group at all but al-Zarqawi that was the “tool” of United States and Israel.

The accusations on their face could be seen as little but competing propaganda. But the animosity runs far deeper than these two radical groups. There is a growing divide in the Middle East between Sunni Muslim extremists, including al-Zarqawi’s group, and Shiite Muslim militants personified by Hezbollah.

Conflict could spill across Gulf
Many see the emerging tensions as a dangerous trend that could lead to violent Shiite-Sunni conflict not just in Iraq but around the Persian Gulf.

What’s unknown yet is whether al-Zarqawi’s death could help ease the tensions. But the omens are grim: The man who al-Qaida says is al-Zarqawi’s successor has already vowed to complete what his predecessor began, including a brutal campaign against Shiites aimed at sparking a civil war in Iraq.

Shiite and Sunni tensions have existed in the Middle East for centuries.

The two branches of Islam live uneasily side by side in some countries, such as Lebanon, or in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Other countries have a strong majority of one or the other that dominates, such as strongly Sunni Saudi Arabia whose Shiite minority is mostly politically repressed.

Al-Zarqawi brought all of that to a boil, because of “his personal hatred of Iraq’s Shiite population,” said Richard Evans, terrorism editor at Jane’s Information Group in London.

His goal was to create a Sunni Muslim religious-based government in Iraq, and he believed “that could only be achieved with the defeat of any Shiite-led Iraqi government,” Evans said. Thus, he tried to kill Shiites in Iraq, which is now ruled by a Shiite-led government.

Al-Zarqawi also may have worried that Hezbollah was too popular among Arab Sunnis — that it was his rival for Sunnis’ affections across the region — because of its fight against Israel.

Accusations of ‘serious ties’
Hezbollah has wide political support among Arabs because it spearheaded the guerrilla warfare against Israel’s 18-year occupation of a buffer zone in southern Lebanon, which ended with an Israeli withdrawal in 2000.

In his last audiotape, al-Zarqawi accused Hezbollah of having “serious ties” with the Jewish state.

“The party has raised false banners regarding the liberation of Palestine, while in fact it stands guard against Sunnis who want to cross the border” into Israel to launch attacks, he said.

Hezbollah publicly has remained quiet on the issue, apparently so as not to inflame feelings. But its officials, when reached by AP, were quick to react.

Hezbollah’s political bureau member in charge of international relations, Nawaf al-Mussawi, accused al-Zarqawi of being a U.S.-Israeli tool against Arab resistance groups.

“His criminal acts are aimed at igniting civil wars and inciting sectarian fighting,” al-Mussawi said. “We will not permit the United States, Israel or its tools to kindle any kind of conflict in Lebanon — between Christians and Muslims or between Shiites and Sunnis.”

Bin Laden lays off attacking Shiites
Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden himself has never attacked Hezbollah and has always presented himself as trying to eliminate strife among Muslims, Evans said.

Indeed, al-Zarqawi’s attacks on Shiite civilians in Iraq have been a point of conflict between his group and bin Laden.

Bin Laden has refrained from attacking Shiites despite the fact that his fundamentalist Sunni strain, called Wahhabi or sometimes called Salafist — like al-Zarqawi’s — also considers Shiites as heretics.

“He (bin Laden) may, as an austere Salafist, have no particular love for Shiites or Hezbollah. But I’m not aware that he’s ever singled them out for specific criticism,” Evans said.

With al-Zarqawi himself gone and despite the vow to carry on his work, Ibrahim Bayram, a Lebanese journalist who follows Hezbollah, said he did not expect the dispute to escalate.

“Hezbollah is very sensitive about getting involved in a sectarian quarrel,” said Bayram, who writes for the Lebanese An-Nahar daily. “It’s very keen on keeping its image pure where the Sunnis are concerned because of its relations with Sunni groups, like the Palestinian ones.”

Hezbollah has close ties to several other Sunni militant groups, including the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which it has provided with financial support and, allegedly, military training.

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