Shiite ascent unsettles Iraq’s Sunni neighbors

A US soldier from the 1st Battalion, 24t
A U.S. soldier from the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment hands out election information flyers to Iraqi civilians Friday during a patrol in a commercial area in Mosul, a violence-plagued city in northern Iraq. Mosul is a predominately Sunni Muslim city.Mauricio Lima / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

While the United States waits with optimism for Iraq’s elections, neighboring Arab nations are nervous. They fear the vote could signal the rise of Shiite Muslims in their Sunni-dominated region, embolden their own Shiite communities and perhaps strengthen Iraq’s ties with Iran.

Arab nations long have been wary of non-Arab, Shiite Iran and worry that an alliance with a Shiite-ruled Iraq would shift the balance of power in a region dominated for centuries by Sunni Muslims. The largely Sunni Muslim regimes also fear such an alliance would inspire unrest among their Shiite populations, which have long complained of discrimination.

“This is really historically unprecedented,” said Farid el-Khazen, chairman of the political studies department at the American University of Beirut. “For the first time in the history of the modern state, Shiites have a share in ruling a country such as Iraq.”

'A Shiite crescent'
Jordan’s King Abdullah II told The Washington Post in December that Iran was seeking to create “a Shiite crescent” in the Middle East that would include Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The comments angered Iran, and the king later said he was not opposed to Shiites.

Still, the words exposed the barely hidden fears about Shiite power.

Lebanon’s most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, said Friday that concerns of a Shiite takeover in Iraq “are unfounded.”

“Shiites are not seeking to take control of the government in Iraq,” he told The Associated Press after Friday prayers in south Beirut.

“The Shiites do not pose a threat to anyone. They want to be open to everyone,” said the 69-year-old cleric, who was born in the Iraqi Shiite holy city of Najaf and lived there for 31 years before moving to Lebanon.

Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq’s 25 million people, were long marginalized during the rule of Saddam Hussein and under previous Iraqi governments, which were dominated by Sunni Arabs.

Since Saddam’s overthrow in April 2003, the Shiite majority has begun asserting its newfound political power.

Meanwhile, the Sunni Arabs, who make up only 20 percent of the population but were the ruling class under Saddam, have grown alienated. They form the core of the Iraqi insurgency, and many Sunni clerics and militants have called for a boycott of Sunday’s election, virtually ensuring that the Shiites, whose leaders have exhorted them to vote, will dominate the future transitional government.

Some analysts say the idea of Iranian domination may be overblown, especially considering the cultural and ethnic differences between Arabs and Iranians. The two countries also fought a devastating war from 1980 to 1988. If Iraq becomes stable, its Shiite spiritual leadership at Najaf could actually become a rival to Iran’s religious hierarchy at Qom, they say.

Also, Iraq’s diverse population — Shiites, Sunnis and Christians, ethnic Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen — will probably make it difficult even for a religious majority to take over.

Bush plays down concerns
Earlier this week President Bush played down the possibility of a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad.

“There’s been longtime problems between Iran and Iraq, and I’m confident that Iraqi nationalism and Iraqi pride and the history of Iraq and traditions of Iraq will be the main focus of the new government, and reflect the new government,” he told Al-Arabiya television.

The Sunni-Shiite schism occurred in the 7th century over who would succeed Islam’s prophet, Muhammad.

Sunnis are the main branch of Islam worldwide and in the Arab world. Shiites form the overwhelming majority in Iraq and Iran, are the largest of 18 religious sects in Lebanon and are a slight majority in Sunni-ruled Bahrain.

Many Arabs, especially in countries where there is no Shiite presence, view the Shiites, their traditions and practices — beating chests, slashing foreheads, or weeping during religious commemorations — as something alien to their cultures.

Sunni dissatisfaction
The Arab attitude toward Iraq’s Shiites does not come from fear, said Abdul-Wahab Badrakhan of the pan-Arab Al Hayat daily.

“It’s rather the dissatisfaction over the fall of a Sunni state in political circumstances the Arab world was not prepared for and was unable to deal with,” he said in a telephone interview from his London office.

The Arabs were used to a Sunni dominated Iraq, he said: “This is the first time in Arab history that Shiite influence will be prominent.”