Shiite win could raise tensions

Fellows Fall 2004

By Julie Goodman

June 01, 2009

Iraq's Shiite population is expected to claim victory in the country's national elections Sunday — giving the oppressed people a long-awaited political voice.

It is a feat that some Middle Eastern experts believe could create a new Shiite zone of influence, potentially aggravating tensions in Lebanon and other countries with strained Shiite-Sunni relations.

Shiites, who comprise about 60 percent of Iraq's population, have had a history of oppression ever since they split from the Sunni Muslim sect in the 7th century in a disagreement over Mohammed's successors.

In more recent history, they endured Sunni Ottoman rule and were persecuted under Saddam Hussein, who once feared the 1979 Iranian Revolution would propel Iraqi Shiites into rebellion.

"The year 2005 is going to be the year of choices for everybody," said Nizar Hamzeh, an American University of Beirut political science professor.

William Quandt, a Middle Eastern expert who served on the National Security Council in the Nixon and Carter administrations, said, if Iraq emerges as a predominately Shiite religious political order, it would elevate the clout of Shiite communities in the Persian Gulf and perhaps in Lebanon, giving them less reason to be so reticent.

Iraq's immediate neighbors with large Sunni populations would become very nervous about such a change, he said.

"Jordan's going to be suspicious, and Turkey's going to be suspicious, and the Saudis are going to go nuts. So where in this region are they going to possibly look for any political support? It's going to be Iran."

Iran and Iraq, which fought each other from 1980-88, could make significant strides by cooperating on issues such as oil interests. "That's a pretty powerful bloc," Quandt said.

They also could oppose Sunni-dominated al-Qaida, which would bode well for the United States, he said.

As'ad AbuKhalil, a California State University-Stanislaus political science professor, envisions a newfound political voice for Shiites with a win in Iraq, one with widespread regional effects.

That voice, however, could make it more difficult to patch together even the semblance of a secular government in Iraq, he said.

Some Sunnis already resent Shiites who are not fighting the U.S. occupation in the country with their same intensity.

Tensions easily could flare in countries such as Saudi Arabia, home to the ultra-Sunni Wahhabi sect. That network is "really edging that conflict on because they always want it to be on," said AbuKhalil, who is from Shiite-dominated Tyre in Lebanon.

Similar animosities could spark in Lebanon, which has some of its own fundamentalist Sunni Muslim groups.

But Fouad Ajami, a Middle Eastern studies professor at Johns Hopkins University, says the idea of a liberated Shiite population in Iraq spreading unrest to other countries is unfounded.

"The idea that somehow or another out of Iraq will come this big Shi'a bogeyman and it will undo the Shi'a of Saudi Arabia and ... they will rebel against the Sunni state is complete bigotry," he said.

"The Lebanese Shi'a will be emancipated; they will spread the virus to other Shi'as. It's all nonsense."

An Iranian-style takeover is not likely, he said, pointing to Shiites in Iraq working against influence from Iran, an Islamic republic with the largest Shiite population in the world.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric, has offered a modicum of caution and moderation in the country, he said.

"He knows his country, he knows it's a country awakening from a long nightmare, he knows the Sunnis are not reconciled to loss of power," he said.

"He wants to keep Iraq together, and they are trying to strike a deal to keep them together."

With more than 165 million Shiites in the world, there is no one set agenda among the sect.

One rift is evident between rebel cleric Muqtada Sadr, who led a militant Shiite Muslim faction in Iraq, and his Lebanon-based family members.

His first cousin is Imam Musa Sadr, a revered cleric credited with reviving Shiism in southern Lebanon before his disappearance in 1978.

"Struggling for your freedom is allowed and laudable, but it doesn't have to be violent," Rabab Sadr Charafeddine, Musa Sadr's sister, said when asked about her cousin.

If there are potential rewards to be gained from a greater Shiite influence, they are not ones that register strongly with Hezbollah, Lebanon's militant Shiite group.

Party leaders are paying less attention to the pending outcome of the election in Iraq than they are to the U.S. occupation that brought it on, said party spokesman Mohamad Afif.

The party sees any progress by U.S. forces in the Middle East as a move toward American domination, control which would weaken Lebanon's battle with Israel.

"If the U.S. is vanquished in Iraq, that's what would really affect the Shiites in Lebanon," he said.

Copyright © 2007 International Reporting Project. All Rights Reserved.