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Shiite struggle in Iraq spills over across Mideast

Shiite struggle in Iraq spills over across Mideast

When Ziad Saleh, a Sunni Muslim Arab, married a Shiite Muslim woman 17 months ago, it did not cross his mind that their mixed marriage would bring risk of death.
But these days, love between Sunnis and Shiites requires extraordinary caution. Saleh and Rawaa al-Saadi, both 28, live in Saleh's house in the Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah. When al-Saadi visits her parents in a Shiite area across Baghdad, Saleh drives her to a neutral zone between the two, where one of her brothers picks her up.
"We sometimes feel like we have done something really wrong, rather than just being an ordinary married couple with a child," said Saleh, bitterly.
The fall of Saddam Hussein was supposed to have heralded a joyous era, freeing Iraqis from decades of oppression that touched everyone _ Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds alike.
Instead, the nation has been torn apart by an ancient divide.
The creation in Iraq of the only Shiite-run Arab government, toppling long Sunni dominance, has released long-restrained hatred between Islam's two main sects. Battles between Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias are claiming scores of victims every day and forcing tens of thousands to flee the country.
And while the main battle has been in Iraq, Shiite power has become a dominant issue across the Middle East, and Sunni Arab leaders in Jordan and Saudi Arabia are expressing growing concern about Shiite power in the Arab lands, often backed by non-Arab, Shiite Iran.
The religious split dates from the Prophet Muhammad's death in 632, when Shiites wanted a member of the prophet's family to succeed him as leader of the faith, while the Sunnis wanted a close friend of Muhammad's to assume the mantle. The dispute led to a series of bloody battles that killed the prophet's son-in-law and grandsons.
The two sides have been politically divided, too. Sunnis are by far the majority in the Muslim world, but in some key Arab states the Shiites are a majority or a significant minority _ in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia _ but have been dominated by Sunnis, often as a legacy of colonial rule by the Sunni-ruled Ottoman Turkish empire and the British.
Now, the Shiites' takeover in Iraq is stirring hopes for similar power in other lands with large Shiite populations. The rivalry has repercussions beyond Islam since it is happening in a region that supplies much of the world's oil.
It was almost by accident that "the Bush administration helped launch a broad Shiite revival that will upset the sectarian balance in Iraq and the Middle East for years to come," said Vali Nasr, a prominent U.S.-based expert on Shiites.
The divide seemed small four years ago when the war was being planned. Today, the fallout already can be seen:
_ In the Gulf state of Bahrain, a strong U.S. ally, tensions between a newly resurgent Shiite majority and the country's ruling Sunni minority threaten to explode into conflict. Many fear the Shiite unrest could derail the booming economy and spill into neighboring Saudi Arabia and its rich oil fields.
_ In Iraq, many now talk openly of partition along sectarian lines, which would end U.S. hopes of promoting a strong, unified, democratic Iraq.
_ In Lebanon, which America had hoped would be an example of democracy in the Middle East, last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah only intensified the Shiite militia's bid for dominance of the government. As the country's delicate political balance is upset, fear of a new civil war goes up.
Arab Shiites angrily deny being part of an Iranian plan for regional Shiite dominance, even in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is financed and its militants trained by Iran.
"There are no realistic political circumstances, regionally or internationally, not even a dream, that the Shiites of this region can be integrated into a single policy or state," said Lebanon's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
Yet there are many ties that bind the 40 million of the Arab world's 300 million people who are Shiites.
Prominent ayatollahs such as the Iraqi-born Fadlallah and Iraq's Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have followers in countries that stretch from Lebanon to India. Many Shiites travel far to pay homage to their imams and saints in Iran, Iraq and Syria.
And across that whole span, they watch what's happening in Iraq.
The U.S. invasion freed the Shiite majority to claim political power, but the ensuing violence has brought despair and anger.
Sunni Arab militants are embittered by the reversal of fortunes that ended their rule over the country under Saddam, and tens of thousands of Shiites have been killed. Politicians and clerics have been gunned down, shrines blown to bits, pilgrims slaughtered and ordinary Iraqis kidnapped and brutally murdered.
Al-Qaida's fugitive leader, Osama bin Laden, a Sunni, called Iraqi Shiite leaders "traitors" and urged his followers to transform Iraq into a Sunni stronghold.
Shiite reprisals have been brutal: Thousands of bodies of Sunnis have been found, often bound and tortured, likely at the hands of Shiite militias, many of which are tied to parties in the government.
Baghdad, which once enjoyed a reputation for religious tolerance, has become a battleground with front lines growing increasingly well defined.
As for the mixed Sunni-Shiite couple, Ziad Saleh and Rawaa al-Saadi, they are fighting to keep this battle from dividing them too, but disagree on whether there's any ground for hope.
"There are places we cannot go to because we fear for Ziad and places we cannot go because of my safety," said al-Saadi, a bank employee. "This is not good. But who knows, perhaps it will be resolved soon."
Saleh is employed by an electricity company but rarely goes to work because a Shiite militia is active in the area. He does not share his wife's guarded optimism.
"By God, I have become so worried recently," said Saleh. "I want us to leave and go and live in Syria, but we just don't have the money."


Updated : 2021-03-04 14:40 GMT+08:00