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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

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And uncertainty about Iran's motives runs deep in the Arab world. Iran came under strong criticism at a high-level conference in Jordan in late May when Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said an Arab peace plan does not have "any chance" of success. The former Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, retorted that Israeli-Palestinian peace is "an Arab issue and should be resolved within the Arab fold." And Bahraini Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa said Iran should be transparent on the nuclear issue and "work in partnership with its neighbors and not at their expense."

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Battle for a new Middle East

The practitioners of confrontation cast their aims in sweeping terms. "Victory of the resistance was not only a victory of arms [over Israel, but also] a victory for the ideology and culture of the resistance," Nasrallah said in an April speech, according to a translation from "The resistance stood in the face of this project for which they are seeking a name, i.e., the New Middle East."

Such rhetoric strikes a chord far beyond Shiite power centers. Hizbullah's victory declaration "is very important for the Shia, but also for the Sunnis in Egypt, where Hizbullah is famous and Nasrallah has become a hero," says Sabrina Mervin, an expert on Shiism at the French Institute of the Near East in Beirut.

"Now Iran is the only country in the region to face the US and this plan of a New Middle East," says Ms. Mervin. "More and more it's growing, this feeling of injustice."

Analysts say there are limits to what this axis can achieve, since each case of Shiite "power" has different roots and aims.

They don't expect the Shiite-Sunni conflict in Iraq to spill over into direct sectarian war elsewhere. Iraq's strong Arab nationalism is likely to check any Iranian effort to fully control the country.

The New Middle East, for this axis, is more about burnishing the ideal of confronting the West than pushing a strategic plan.

"What you have now is a franchising of that [resistance] ideology," says Daniel Brumberg, author of "Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran." While there is a short-term anti-US ideology taking root, competing agendas between Shiite leaders will prevent creation of a "greater Shiite, Iranian hegemony in any clear-cut sense."

Still, it does appeal. That's one reason Iran is unlikely to back down on its nuclear ambitions, say analysts, which bolsters Iran's status among allies, and unnerves enemies. "This model [of resistance] is finding its place.... When Ahmadinejad goes to any country and expresses this view to young generations, they are attentive to it," says Mr. Taraghi, the right-wing politician in Tehran. "It's like a flame that you light up in the darkness."

The original "war on terror" – against Al Qaeda alone – has now been allowed to dangerously expand, says Vali Nasr, author of "The Shia Revival."

"We're at the point in this region [where] we can't militarily turn the dynamic," says Mr. Nasr, who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. Al Qaeda "is not going to go away," he says, so the effort should be to examine what drives the axis of resistance, address those issues, and "bring everybody to the table again."

That means talking to Hamas, to Sadr, to Syria, to Hizbullah, and even to Iran, he says, if only to return to a single-front battle against Al Qaeda.

"The more of these guys you bring in from the cold, the smaller the scope of resistance," says Nasr. "[But] if you operate on the assumption that you can crush the resistance, then you are committing yourself to perpetual war."

• Thursday: The populist Shiite leaders and the militants who follow them.