Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Terrified that sectarian Muslim bloodshed could soon engulf the region, U.S. allies and adversaries in the Middle East have stepped up joint efforts to head off a religious civil war.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran have held intensive talks in recent days on ways to tamp down sectarian violence in Iraq and Lebanon. Over the weekend, Saudi King Abdullah issued an unusual public call for calm.

Top Islamic clerics and scholars in Egypt, Qatar and Iraq also have issued statements urging Muslim unity, often blaming the United States and other outside actors of trying to divide the faithful.

“All scholars are condemning the ongoing sectarian war between Sunnis and Shi’ites as a threat to the unity of Iraq and drawing the attention of Muslims away from the real enemy of the [Islamic world],” Aisha al-Mannai, an Islamic law scholar at Qatar University, said last week at the conclusion of an emergency conference in Doha on the growing tensions among various strains of Islam.

According to the Doha conference communique: “Any exchange of insults against the companions of the prophet Muhammad or his relatives should be treated as an un-Islamic act.”

The swirl of activity reflects the deep regional fears that Middle East crises, from Iraq to Lebanon to the Palestinian territories, could pit the faith’s two largest branches against each other.

In Iraq yesterday, authorities told the Associated Press that at least 58 Shi’ite worshippers were killed in three separate attacks on one of the holiest days in the Shi’ite Muslim calendar. Five Sunnis in Baghdad were killed in an apparent retaliatory mortar barrage later in the day, just the latest in a vicious cycle in nearly two years of sectarian reprisal attacks.

Al Qaeda and other radical Sunni movements have targeted Shi’ites and their holy sites in Iraq as a way to foment sectarian civil war, a strategy that even President Bush has conceded has been successful.

Sunni Muslim rulers such as Saudi King Abdullah and Jordan’s King Abdullah II have voiced fears of an aggressive Shi’ite revival, bankrolled and armed by Iran’s Islamic republic. They cite the rise of Iraq’s new Shi’ite-dominated government, the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, and Iranian backing for Palestinian militant factions in the conflict with Israel.

Skeptical of U.S. strategy and resolve in Iraq, Saudi officials have met in Riyadh with Iranian national security chief Ali Larijani and with a delegation from Hezbollah in recent days. Arab-language newspapers close to the Saudi regime said the separate visits focused on containing the crisis in Lebanon and tamping down Sunni-Shi’ite tensions in general.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said Iranian leaders had appealed to Riyadh to “cooperate in averting strife between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq and Lebanon.”

Mohammed Mehdi Akef, the spiritual leader of the militant Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, late last week issued a statement condemning Sunni-Shi’ite divisions, implicitly blaming U.S. policy in Iraq and the region to fanning the tensions.

“The schemes of the foreign occupier are responsible for the discord,” he said.

But the Doha conference also was marred by sharp exchanges between Sunni and Shi’ite clerics, with both sides blaming the other for the violence in Iraq. Sunni scholars also accuse Iran and its Shi’ite allies of a concerted effort to convert Sunnis to their form of Islam.

In a rare interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper over the weekend largely overlooked in the West, Saudi King Abdullah had a double-edged message for Iran.

The king told the Al-Seyassah newspaper that Saudi Arabia “does not support any party that is an enemy of Iran,” but also cautioned Tehran against underestimating the danger of antagonizing the United States in Iraq and elsewhere.

“We advised Iran on how you go about cooperating internationally, and to avoid exposing the Gulf region to dangers,” the king said of his meeting with Iran’s Mr. Larijani.

The king also said he was aware of popular fears in the Sunni world about rising Shi’ite power.

“The majority of Sunni Muslims will never change their faith,” he said.

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