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ANALYSIS - Iraq revives Sunni-Shi'ite tensions among neighbours

Wed Oct 5, 2005 12:01 AM IST170

By Samia Nakhoul

DUBAI (Reuters) - For Sunni Muslim-ruled Gulf states, seeing Iraq fall under Shi'ite influence after the 2003 U.S.-led war that ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was shocking enough.

Now they fear that rising tensions between Iraq's disgruntled Sunni minority and triumphant Shi'ite majority will erupt into all-out civil war that could surge across their borders and rock the fragile balance of power in the region.

From Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, to tiny Bahrain, with a Shi'ite majority, Gulf rulers are facing a reality they spent decades striving to ignore.

"This Shi'ite-Sunni tension is spilling into the region," Dubai-based analyst Mustafa Alani told Reuters. "If the Shi'ites of Iraq can come to power, Shi'ites next door in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait feel why can't they do the same."

When Shi'ite Islamist parties won elections in January to dominate Iraq's government it was the first time in more than 800 years that Shi'ites had taken power in a core Arab country.

The Shi'ite-led government is a prime target for Sunni Arab insurgents and foreign militants, such as Iraq's al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who has declared all-out war on Shi'ites.

"The most dangerous phenomenon is not the war between Sunni insurgents and American forces in Iraq but the Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian strife," said Saudi reformist Mansour Nogaidan.

Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni power in the Gulf, this month sounded the alarm, warning that Iraq was heading toward disintegration and raising fears of a wider conflict.

Its concern is shared by other regional governments, some of which also have Shi'ite minorities emboldened by the seismic shift in the power balance between Islam's two main sects.

"The neighbouring countries are terrified of Shi'ite and Iranian expansion. The biggest fear lies in Saudi Arabia which holds the banner of Sunni Islam," said Nogaidan.

"For them the biggest danger is losing the influence of Sunni Islam to Shi'ite Islam," he added.


Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, whose country and other Sunni Gulf states backed Saddam in his 1980-88 war against Iran, expressed Riyadh's concerns in blunt terms on Sunday.

"The growing fear of an outbreak of a sectarian civil war in Iraq is not a chimera but a trend that is becoming clearer day after day," he said after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers.

"We believe that interfering in Iraq threatens a wider conflict in the region... History will never forgive those who used the tragedy of Iraq to serve their vested interests.

"Stoking the fire of sectarian discord and civil strife will be a calamity for all," the Saudi foreign minister said.

Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabor, a Shi'ite, attacked Faisal for his previous remarks on Iran's role, saying Baghdad would not be lectured by "some Bedouin riding a camel".

He said Saudi Arabia treated its own Shi'ites as "third-class citizens". Saudi Shi'ites, believed to make up a tenth of the kingdom's native population of 17 million, complain they are marginalised by a government allied to purist Wahhabi Sunni scholars who consider Shi'ism a heresy.

Iran has denied it is interfering in Iraq, but it has close ties to the new Iraqi leadership, dominated by Islamist Shi'ite parties that found refuge in Iran during Saddam's rule.

Diplomats and analysts say Iran also wields religious influence over Iraqi clerics and has access to military intelligence through the Badr Brigades, established by Iranian Revolutionary Guards as the military wing of the biggest Shi'ite party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.


Animosity between Sunnis and Shi'ites goes back to a centuries-old religious schism that still poisons relations.

Hardline Sunnis regard Shi'ites as "rejectionists" who strayed from true Islam. Until recently Gulf states banned Shi'ites from performing religious rituals in public. In some countries they are denied government and security jobs.

After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini swept to power in Iran in 1979, Western and Gulf states supported Saddam, a Sunni, in his eight-year war against the "export" of the Islamic revolution.

For years Arab leaders put up with Saddam's policies simply because they saw him as a guarantee against Shi'ite power.

When the West and the region turned against Saddam after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, prominent U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia opposed finishing off the Iraqi leader after the 1991 Gulf war, fearing the Shi'ites would step into the vacuum.

The Saudis now believe U.S. policy in Iraq is widening sectarian divisions and effectively handing the country to Iran.

"They (Americans) gave Iraq to Iran on a gold plate free of charge. They did what Khomeini failed to achieve. He must be celebrating in his grave, thanking the Americans," Alani said.

(Additional reporting by Alistair Lyon in London, Paul Hughes in Tehran and Isa Mubarak in Bahrain)