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Shiites Rising: Islam's minority reaches new prominence

Shiite Muslims are leading an 'axis of resistance' that unnerves Sunnis and challenges the US and Israel. Part 1 of two

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 6, 2007

"Divine victory." That's how Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah portrayed the 34-day war last summer when a few thousand Hizbullah soldiers fought Israel's vaunted military to a standstill.

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Lebanon's most renowned Shiite cleric stood before a sea of yellow Hizbullah flags on Sept. 22, 2006, in a rare moment of triumph for a Shiite leader; and it reverberated throughout the Middle East.

For more than 1,300 years, Shiites have been an oppressed Islamic minority. Even today they represent just 10 to 15 percent of the world's Muslims. But Sheikh Nasrallah's clout is part of a broader rise of Shiite power. Iraq and Iran (Shiite-led states) control the world's second- and third-largest oil reserves, respectively. And Shiite leaders - Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iraq's Moqtada al-Sadr, and Nasrallah - are household names with support that crosses national and sectarian lines.

US policies, experts agree, have played a key role in this elevation. Arab Sunni leaders warn of an emerging "Shiite Crescent." But more than political and economic power, they worry about the Shiite world view.

Shiism is suffused with a culture of resistance, an identity that finds spiritual meaning in fighting injustice and through martyrdom. The result is a Shiite-led "axis of resistance" with Iran and Hizbullah at its core, versus a US-led Western alliance that includes Israel.

Is a battle for a "new" Middle East under way? Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seems to think so. Last month, he declared that "great war of wills" is taking place. Iran standing up tothe US and the West has "exploded a bomb in world politics that is a hundred times more powerful than the [atomic] bomb ... exploded in Hiroshima."

Today the Monitor begins a two-part special report on the Shiite ascension - in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon - and its future.


Nine hundred miles separate the front line of last summer's war in Lebanon from a vast Tehran cemetery where Iran has buried thousands of its martyrs. Relatives come regularly to reverently lay flowers and press their lips to faded portraits of soldiers who perished in the 1980-88 war with Iraq. But today, the graveyard also honors another war hero.

Countless stickers, depicting the face of Lebanon's Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, now adorn one memorial after another.

That admiration is part of the strong and growing connection between Shiite Muslims – a bond that crosses borders and unites the fraction of Muslims who are its adherents.

Months after Israeli and Hizbullah forces fought in Lebanon, would-be Iranian martyrs still dream of taking up arms alongside their distant Shiite brethren.

"We were waiting. If we were needed, we would have gone to Lebanon to defend Shiites," says Manoucher Rasoulzadeh, an Iranian car salesman, during his weekly visit to the grave of his brother-in-law, a 1987 "martyr" of the war.

While Sheikh Nasrallah's visage evokes pride among Shiites in Iran, it's another figure whose sacrifice defines and unifies this minority Islamic sect.

Mr. Rasoulzadeh reaches for his cellphone to show off an image of Imam Hussein ibn Ali, the revered cleric who was martyred in AD 680, with his hopelessly outnumbered band of followers in battle in Karbala, Iraq. It shows a thickly bearded man with rays of light coming from his green-turbaned head.

In the pantheon of Shiite holy men, none towers higher than Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad. The biggest Shiite holiday of the year, Ashura, honors that legend with reenactments, poetry, parades, and bloody self-flagellation.