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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 4 of 6)

Layers of complexity make the future allegiance of Iraqi Shiites difficult to discern. But their more immediate challenge is the Sunni insurgency, which targets Shiites as "non-Muslims" more despicable than US forces in Iraq.

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"This sectarian divide will lead to civil war, [and] if that happens, it will not just be within Iraqi borders, but across all the Middle East," says Ayad Jamaladin, a moderate Shiite parliamentarian and cleric in Baghdad. Mideast countries "are weak. If [they] fall down, you will witness huge destruction, and it's a golden opportunity for Al Qaeda."

Some Shiite death squads have tortured and killed up to 100 Sunnis a day in Baghdad alone. The current "surge" of US forces into the capital is meant to cut those numbers, and for a time, it did.

But the sectarian poison that courses between the two branches of Islam was on display as Hussein was taunted at the gallows by Shiite hangmen. "Hasten his return [of the Mahdi, the Shiite Messiah], curse his enemy, and grant victory to his son, Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada!" rejoiced the Shiite government executioner as the noose tightened on Dec. 30, 2006.

Sunnis recoiled and demonstrated against the graphic display of Shiite triumphalism captured by a cellphone camera. Many Shiites turned away, too, unaccustomed to being seen as oppressors after centuries of being oppressed.

An American hand in the Shiite rise

Ironically, analysts say, it has been the way America has pursued the war on terror since 2001 that has facilitated the current rise of Shiites in Iran and Iraq – both charter members of President Bush's "axis of evil" – and boosted their prospects in Lebanon.

When the US toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001 and then invaded Iraq to overthrow Hussein in 2003, it erased Iran's two most troublesome neighbors.

Tehran feared it was "next" in line for US-engineered regime change, prompting a secret offer to discuss all outstanding issues – from support for militants to nuclear issues – with Washington.

Buoyed by the swift fall of Baghdad, the White House refused. But as America became bogged down in Iraq, Iran's fear gave way to assertiveness. Its deep influence in Iraq has made Tehran the "winner" of the Iraq war.

"What we see as rising Shiite power is not because of anything the Shiites have done, but because of mistakes of the US," says Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of Iran's parliament and presidential candidate. "These are because of the occupation of Iraq and US actions in Lebanon."

"Our power is becoming clearer to the world," agrees Abolhasan Navvab, a prominent cleric in Tehran close to Iran's supreme religious leader. "We don't want to make war or follow hard-liners like bin Laden or Al Qaeda. We are not into making problems for America," he says, adding that Iran's nuclear power project should be accepted. "But we will not give up."

Still, Iran's role as catalyst may be finite. "There is no strategy of empowering the Shiites ... but an attempt to stop US designs on Iran," says a Western-educated Iranian analyst in Tehran, who asked not to be named. "Iran will try to influence where she is trusted, and that's with Shiite groups.

"When you talk of [Iran's] regional power, where is it? West Beirut, Baghdad, Basra, maybe the man on the street in Cairo," says the analyst. "But that soft power can disappear in days."