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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

(Page 3 of 6)

"When you look at powerful actors in the region today, who is rejecting American hegemony?" asks Ms. Saad-Ghorayeb. "It's this new strategic axis: Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and Hamas – and two of them are non-Shiite."

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Hizbullah is "fully immersed in this religious ideology," says Saad-Ghorayeb. "There are people who have been raised by mothers who want them, encourage them, to sacrifice themselves. The medium is Shiite Islam – it's a very valuable mobilizing tool."

Alireza Taraghi, a conservative politician and editor in Tehran, agrees. "When Imam Khomeini said 'export the revolution,' he didn't mean sending people to that country and by war converting people by force to their beliefs. He meant this idea [of resistance] should be expressed in the world."

Indeed, that is how Iranian leaders cast current events. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has framed a more assertive anti-Western foreign policy, from Iran's controversial nuclear program to the capture of 14 British sailors patrolling Iraqi waters in April.

Today, he echoes Khomeini, who said years ago that "the issues of Palestine and Lebanon [are among] our main goals," and "we consider Lebanon ours."

Iran and Lebanon are "limbs of the same body," Mr. Ahmadinejad said in February, praising Hizbullah's fight last summer. "The spectacular resistance of your nation against military aggression of the Zionist regime was unique and totally unmatched," he crowed. "With its resistance, the Lebanese nation became the flag of resistance, piety, and pride for all nations."

Shiite resistance in Iraq

And where Iran and Lebanon lead, Shiites in Iraq – at least some of them – follow. Since modern Iraq was created in 1921, Sunnis have ruled. But the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the arrival of an imperfect democracy has put the 60-percent Shiite majority in control for the first time.

Mr. Hussein outlawed Shiite rites and forced thousands of Iraqis with Persian roots to leave. In 1991, his security forces slaughtered tens of thousands of Shiites after an uprising. Ayatollahs who resisted the dictator's rule were assassinated along with their families.

But even as Shiite rituals today are freely practiced, the country is being torn by severe sectarian violence that takes up to 3,700 lives in a single month. Shiites are divided, too. The largest faction takes part in the US-backed government. But the most popular faction, led by the nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, continues its calls for the US military to leave Iraq.

The junior cleric's militia has battled twice with US forces and still skirmishes. The Mahdi Army is accused of running death squads that target Sunnis in revenge attacks. But Mr. Sadr also has loyalists in the Iraqi parliament, whose support clinched Nouri al-Maliki's bid for prime minister, making Sadr a kingmaker.

Iranian influence on its Shiite-led neighbor is deep, both in formal contacts with Iraqi leaders once exiled in Iran and with networks of agents that can be activated at any time. Some argue that when US forces pull out of Iraq, Washington will effectively be ceding the country to Iran.

Marking that concern, Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf just 150 miles off Iran's coast last month, warned that the US could use military force "to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region."

But there are softer signals as well. US and Iranian officials met publicly for the first time in 27 years on May 28, with ambassadors talking for four hours about how to calm violence in Iraq. Both sides spoke of progress, but the meeting is unlikely to be the last over competing interests in Iraq.