- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 30, 2006

Failure to understand and to take into account the conflict between Shi’ites and Sunnis has been devastating to American Middle Eastern policy. We had better focus on the issue now before it’s too late. The stakes are large, including control of the oil that is the lifeblood of United States and European democracies.

The basic problem in Iraq is not a dispute between the United States, as occupier, and the Iraqi people, as an occupied nation. It is not between secularists and fundamentalists. It is not between the Iraqi government and insurgents. To be sure, all of these play some role in the current violence. However, the single most important conflict is the one that pits Shi’ites against Sunnis.

Likewise, in Lebanon this intra-Islam conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites is at the heart of the current problem and threatens an outbreak of civil war. The Shi’ites, led by Hezbollah, have made war on the Lebanese nation and its democratically elected government. With its brazen attack on Israel this summer, Hezbollah, which had for years been the government within the government in the south, decided unilaterally to become the government for all of Lebanon.

The Lebanese civil war that erupted in the late 1970s pitted Muslims against Christians with the Druze joining one side or the other at various times. The current lineup is different. Now the Christians and Druze are joined by the Sunnis. For the combination of these three groups, the Shi’ites and Hezbollah are the enemy.

In oil-rich Bahrain, Shi’ites, who comprise a majority of the population, are rearing their heads politically and attempting to gain control from the Sunnis who have governed the country for decades. Among the ruling monarchy in Saudi Arabia, ruled by a conservative Sunni regime, there is fear and dread about what the minority, but sizeable, Shi’ite population will do about asserting its political rights. The issue here is even more complex because the Shi’ites inhabit the oil-rich eastern part of the kingdom.

In the United States, senior policy-makers and commentators have been slow to recognize both the extent of animosity between Shi’ites and Sunnis and its significance for events in the Middle East. The hatred between Sunnis and Muslims goes back to 632 CE and the death of prophet Muhammad. The most critical issue following Muhammad’s death was his succession. The forbearers of the Sunnis followed the tribal tradition of having a council of elders select as the head of the Islamic community the individual most qualified to lead. The forbearers of the Shi’ites on the other hand believed that Muhammad heirs should rule the Islamic community.

The conflict came to a head in the battle of Karbala in 680 CE when the Sunnis forbearers massacred the prophet’s grandson Husayn and his followers. Gleefully, the victors carried Husayn’s head to Damascus and paraded it there. Is it any wonder that for the next 1,300 years, there has been hatred and recurring warfare between these two sects within Islam who differ radically in their religious practices.

Iran is a Persian, not Arab country. Its people are almost entirely Shi’ite. With the fall of the shah and the Islamic revolution, a Shi’ite government was installed in Tehran. This was a marked contrast to the ruling powers in the Arab Islamic nations where the Sunnis exert tight control, even though there are large, and often impoverished, Shi’ite populations. What the mullahs have done from their base in Iran is to stir up Shi’ite communities throughout the Middle East and encourage them to take control of their governments. This is what is happening in Lebanon and in Bahrain and will happen at some time in the near future in Saudi Arabia and other countries.

The United States did not create this conflict, which has spanned 13 centuries, with our invasion in Iraq. Unwittingly, however, with our emphasis on democracy in the Middle East we have provided the means for Shi’ites to seize control in their countries. At the ballot box. In elections.

For more than 50 years, the primary conflict in the Middle East has been the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. That is now changing. Coming to the forefront is the enmity between Sunnis and Shi’ites, which is likely to influence events in the Middle East at least for the rest of this decade, and perhaps much longer.

Allan Topol is an international lawyer and the author of several novels.

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