The Next Sunni-Shia War

Yahya Birt

Posted Feb 10, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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The Next Sunni-Shia War

Yahya Birt

Back in the 1980s, the USA, Saudi Arabia and Saddam’s Iraq worked together to pin back Khomeini’s Iran. Besides the bloody Iran-Iraq war, there was war of the theological kind too: a rather familiar one of Sunni-Shia mutual anathematization. Now there are similar portents of a sanguinary reprise in which the priority will once again be the containment of Iran through a vicious proxy war in Iraq (and the fear is, further afield), with what might be the tacit blessing of the US and the UK. Think of Afghanistan in the 1990s with all her internecine intra-Muslim sectarian and ethnic conflict, goaded along by her more powerful neighbours, and then multiply the gruesome consequences many times.

The key to this switch is that neither of America’s closest allies in the Middle East — Saudi Arabia and Israel — want to see Iran become a nuclear power, nor do they want her influence to spread further across the Shia core population (120m out of 130m worldwide) that extends from Lebanon to Pakistan. Neither want to see Iranian influence left uncontested in Iraq. Saudi Arabia has its own Shia population to contend with, and Israel still seeks, despite last summer’s unsuccessful military venture, to disable Hezbollah militarily. Israel’s position on Iran has been clearly stated (as indeed has been Ahmedinejad’s on Israel), but the signs of a hardening in the Saudi position have become clearer recently. (As recently as 2003, the then Crown Prince Abdullah called for a reconciliation between the Kingdom’s Shiite and Salafi scholars.)

Doves like Faisal al-Turki, who backed the Baker Plan’s main recommendation — i.e. to talk to Iran on the endgame for Iraq — have been sidelined in favour of a more hardline approach. This political shift in the Saudi establishment has been signalled, in the normal manner, by unleashing the Kingdom’s clerics. Abdul Rahman al-Burak, one of the Kingdom’s senior religious scholars, issued a fatwa at the end of December in which he said that “The general ruling is that they [Shiites] are infidels, apostates and hypocrites. … They are more dangerous than Jews or Christians.” [1] This month 30 Saudi scholars called on Sunnis in the Middle East to support the Sunni militias against the Shia of Iraq. [2] Similarly, intellegence sources are reporting that the Saudis, the Israelis and the CIA are working together to do what they can to prop up the weakened government in Lebanon against Hezbollah. [3] We haven’t heard much condemnation from either the US or the UK of Saudi financing of Sunni militias in Iraq. In fact, if anything, the political kid gloves have been put on: Tony Blair recently called off an investigation into substantial kickbacks from the British defence industry to some Saudi princes. [4]

With the execution of Saddam Hussain at the hands of Moqtada al-Sadr’s partisans on the day of Eid al-Adha, he has unimaginably been reinvented as a Sunni martyr, despite his track record of non-discriminatory brutality. His trial only featured 148 of his multitudinous victims — all Shiite — with no justice and potential reconciliation for his Kurdish, Iraqi Sunni, Kuwaiti and indeed many Iranian victims. This grisly execution demonstrates that the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad is too closely involved with the Shia militias to rein them in. Generally speaking, Sunni-Shia bloodletting has escalated further since the attack on the al-Askari mosque of Samarra in February 2006.

And the indications are that George W. Bush’s current “axis of evil” centres on Iran and its associates — Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran’s allies in Iraq — against which might be pitted Tony Blair’s “arc of moderation” (a euphemism unveiled at Doha in December) at the centre of which is Saudi Arabia, but includes all those other states that want to rein in Iran, including Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and Israel. There has also been talk among US administration officials of promoting a “Sunni crescent”. [5] But despite all this political spin, anyone with a basic knowledge of Middle Eastern politics would immediately realise that this division cannot be easily repackaged as the next round of Sunni-Shia conflict — but atavistic sectarian currents will be provoked in any case.

In his speech yesterday, Bush announced an increase in troop numbers, with most of the new troops being committed to take on the Shia militias, although some attention has been given to Sunni militias in Anbar Province. There is no political strategy here, let alone counter-insurgency tactics. Just the use of more and more brute force. And no talking to Iran and Syria. No proactive attempt to find a solution in Iraq that will bring all its neighbours to the table to sort out their various concerns. It is not as though such things are not being mooted: the basis of a workable regional peace plan was laid out recently by the former Iraqi defence minister, Ali Allawi. [6]

Instead the US, with support from the British, looks to be planning to take out the Shia militias in Iraq while turning a blind eye to Saudi support for Sunni partisans. Two further military offensives that could rip the Middle East apart now look possible: a renewed Israeli strike against Hezbollah and the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities, either directly by the US or more likely by using Israel as a proxy.

It is vital that Sunnis and Shiites come together in Europe and North America to stand up against the immorality of this neo-colonial “divide and rule” and the sheer insanity of risking the export of the sectarian Sunni-Shia bloodbath in Iraq to the wider Middle East. Muslims of the West of all stripes must work together to push for a political settlement that recognises the security needs and concerns of all the region’s countries and persecuted minorities, and to do so in the spirit of intra-Muslim amity and solidarity. It would be criminal to sit back in silent grief or angry despondency and say and do nothing.


[1] ‘Top Saudi cleric issues religious religious edict declaring Shiites to be infidels’, International Herald Tribune, 29 December 2006.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Tony Harden, ‘CIA gets the go-ahead to take on Hizbollah’, Daily Telegraph, 10 January 2007.
[4] David Leigh and Rob Evans, ‘”National interest” halts arms corruption inquiry’, Guardian, 15 December 2006.
[5] Tony Harden, ibid.
[6] Ali Allawi, ‘For the first time, a real blueprint for peace in Iraq’, Independent, 5 January 2007.

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