Sectarian divide

Published : Dec 29, 2006 00:00 IST

The Shia-Sunni polarisation in Iraq is snowballing across the region and has the potential to reshape West Asia.


ONCE the pride of Iraq and the symbol of its ancient heritage, the Tigris river recently acquired an ignominious attribution. Slicing through Baghdad, it has become the dividing line between the city's warring Sunni and Shia communities.

Sectarian violence has forced Sunnis living in Shia areas in the east to migrate to the western bank of the Tigris and vice versa. Real estate agents say Sunni and Shia families living on the "wrong side" of the river are swapping houses, many of them fully furnished, and this arrangement is working well for people on both sides. The Sunni-Shia polarisation in Baghdad, which was known as the "city of peace" since it was founded more than a thousand years ago, surfaced after the United States invasion of Iraq.

The famous Abu Hanifa mosque, a 19th century structure revered by Sunnis, is situated on the eastern bank in an area surrounded by the predominantly Shia Rasaffa district. For Iraqis, it has been a symbol of peaceful coexistence. Similarly, the Shia stronghold of Kadhimiyah, surrounding the shrine of the 8th century Shia saint Musa al-Kadhim, is on the Sunni side of the Tigris.

Two major events have sharpened the divide. First, the February bombing of the Al Askari shrine, a historic Shia monument in Samarra, which triggered a spate of reprisal attacks that culminated in a self-generating cycle of violence. Second, the November 23 serial blasts in Sadr City, a sprawling Shia slum of around 2.5 million people, which killed nearly 200 people. Mourners' tents sprouted in the area the next day, while convoys of hearses headed towards the holy city of Najaf for burial of the dead. In Sadr City, grief and fury combined explosively, turning ordinary people into murderous gangs seeking revenge.

The animosity between the communities is no longer a localised phenomenon. It is drawing neighbouring countries into the arena, threatening a long-drawn regional war.

The fault lines between Sunnis and Shias in West Asia are well defined. Egypt, a regional heavyweight and the most populous country in the region, has a dominant Sunni population. Saudi Arabia, the most powerful country in the Arabian peninsula, has a staunch Sunni leadership which has had an uneasy relationship with its Shia minority, residing mostly in the oil-rich eastern provinces. The Sunni rulers of Jordan have played a significant role in shaping the political map of West Asia. A branch of Jordan's Hashemite dynasty ruled Iraq soon after the country was formed following the First World War.

The Shias in Lebanon feel alienated and have been marginalised despite being the single largest community in the country. Many influential Shias feel that the pan-Arab movement and the Arab League have been used by Sunnis to dominate Shia Arabs.

The 1979 Islamic revolution in Shia-dominated Iran is seen as an event that redefined Sunni-Shia equations. Ties between Shias in Iraq and Iran were strengthened in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. The crackdown on Shias in Iraq by Saddam Hussein's government led to a flood of refugees into Iran. Some of the present leaders in Iraq, including Abdulaziz Al Hakim, had taken refuge in Iran then. Al Hakim now heads the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which was formed with Iran's support. Iran's Revolutionary Guards also armed and trained the Badr Corps, the SCIRI's armed wing which has a powerful presence in present-day Iraq. Similarly, Iran has had deep links with the semi-secret armed wing of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki's Al Dawa party.

Iran also has a deep relationship with the Shia-dominated Hizbollah in Lebanon. The Hizbollah's success in resisting Israeli attacks during Lebanon's 34-day war this summer not only raised its profile but also bolstered Iran's credentials in the region.

Iran's assertion in Iraq and Lebanon - a clear challenge to the status quo - has alarmed the neighbouring Sunni countries. "There is now close coordination within the Sunni bloc, led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, to challenge Iran," Mustafa Alani, senior adviser for Security and Terrorism Studies at Dubai's Gulf Research Centre told Frontline.

The clearest articulation of Saudi Arabia's unease on account of Iran's growing regional clout has come from Nawaf Obaid, an adviser to the Saudi government. Writing in The Washington Post, he points out, "Saudi Arabia is worried about a new Iran imposing its political agenda on the region. We don't want Iran and its allies to have a free hand and free control." He adds, "To turn a blind eye to the massacre of Iraqi Sunnis would be to abandon the principles upon which the kingdom was founded." The Saudi government subsequently distanced itself from these remarks, but analysts say Obaid's observations could reflect the opinion of at least a section of the Saudi establishment.

Saudi Arabia is well positioned to shape events in Iraq through its cross-border tribal network. A research paper authored by Obaid and Anthony H. Cordesman, published by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, points to some of the links between Saudi families and their Iraqi counterparts. "By and large, the foot soldiers [of the Sunni uprising in Iraq] are members of the extremely conservative families from traditional Sunni tribal groups of Iraq. The Saudi intelligence assessments that have led to this conclusion derive from the strong tribal connections that exist between Iraqi and Saudi families. Thus, a great deal of information about the insurgency has been transmitted back to Saudi Arabia from Iraq via these tribal links."

The Saudis are also well positioned to play a leading role in resurrecting a credible Sunni leadership in parts of Iraq. Iraqi Sunni cleric Harith al-Dhari, who heads the Association of Muslim Scholars, has acquired a high profile in the region and could become the face of a possible Sunni resurgence in Iraq. Saudi Arabia hosted him in October at Makkah during a conference of Iraqi Sunni and Shia leaders. A month later, he was the guest of Jordan's King Abdullah II in Amman. Al-Dhari's interaction with the top Sunni leaders of the region has upset Iraq's Shia-dominated government, which has issued an arrest warrant against him.

The Saudis have also made inroads into the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq that share a border with Iran. For instance, Saudi businessmen have shown an interest in real estate projects in Erbil, the capital of the relatively stable Kurdish areas. One such project is Empire World, a $350-million property development enterprise that has drawn investors from the Gulf countries and other parts of West Asia.

Elsewhere in the Sunni heartland, Jordan has been vocal about the perceived Iranian threat in the region. Two years ago, King Abdullah II had warned about the rise of the Shia "crescent" stretching from Iran to Lebanon. More recently, he said West Asia could end up with three civil wars: in Lebanon, in Iraq and in the Palestinian territories. A senior Jordanian official was quoted as saying that "[Iran] is operating through its local allies in Iraq and through Hizbollah and Hamas. It is engaging with the marginalised Shia communities in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait to turn them into arrows that can challenge their government's legitimacy and authority."

That Iraq could now become the epicentre of a region-wide Sunni-Shia conflagration has been well recognised by the Iraq Study Group, whose report was submitted on December 7. Authored by James Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, one of paragraphs of the report reads: "Ambassadors from neighbouring countries told us that they fear the distinct possibility of Sunni-Shia clashes across the Islamic world."

With American military clout waning in Iraq and the local Iraqi government remaining largely dysfunctional, the power vacuum in the country has become accentuated. This is likely to result in Iraq witnessing high-intensity violence.

Two other factors are likely to reinforce this gloomy scenario. First, Iraq's religious communities, especially Sunnis and Shias, are well armed and deeply radicalised. Secondly, they have roots in neighbouring countries, which are engaged in a do-or-die battle for influence across West Asia.

This conflagration, in which Iraq's neighbouring countries are likely to play a key role, is likely to pose a serious challenge to American efforts to shape the region's political agenda.

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