A two-part Monitor series on the rise of Shiite Muslims in the Middle East reveals a subtle tactic among the sect's radical leaders: Don't confront Sunni rivals but rather find common cause. If they succeed, it may reshape the region, especially in Iraq, where this intra-Muslim conflict now plays out in daily bombings.
The new Shiite message was recently delivered by Iraq's powerful cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, who emerged from months of hiding – perhaps in Iran – to avoid the American military surge. In late May, he told followers in a mosque sermon: "I want to say now that the blood of Sunnis is forbidden to everyone."
Then on Tuesday, the fiery young Mr. Sadr demonstrated his heavy political influence in Iraq's parliament. His bloc of legislators joined up with Sunni lawmakers to pass a resolution that requires the government to seek parliamentary permission before asking the United Nations to extend the mandate of US-led forces in Iraq. That mandate ends Dec. 31. Up to now, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his moderate Shiites in government have simply sought UN approval on their own.
Sadr's message came as his allies in Shiite Iran began talks with the United States to seek a solution for Iraq's war. Together, Iran and the Iraqi cleric are soft-pedalling any notion of Shiites seeking a strong regional role. They say they seek Muslim unity, driven by mutual resistance to Israel and to outsiders such as the US. A similar message can be heard from Iran's proxy group in Lebanon, Hizbullah.
But is their goal really to achieve Shiite dominance in the Middle East, anchored by creation of the first Arab Shiite state in Iraq? (Iran is not Arab.)
Or do they simply want to prevent the kind of Sunni dominance that has marked the region for centuries? (Sunni supremacy was particularly cruel in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.)
If indeed Iran and Sadr now truly want mutual respect with Sunnis, then the path toward peace in Iraq may become easier. But if the current Iraq war is really about securing Shiite dominance, starting with control of Baghdad, then the Americans face difficult decisions ahead on troop levels or, perhaps, withdrawal.
That is why it is crucial for the Maliki government to quickly accommodate many of the political demands of Iraq's Sunni minority, such as sharing the nation's oil wealth.
Iran's intentions remain unclear. It steams ahead with nuclear enrichment that can lead to atomic blackmail in the region, but it also sends emissaries to the Sunni-dominated states like Saudi Arabia to appease any fears of Iran's rising influence.
One sign of Iran's motives may lie in the recent revival of its Center for Rapprochement of Islamic Schools of Thought. The purpose of this Shiite outpost in Tehran is to persuade Sunnis worldwide that any theological differences between the two sects are small compared with the larger goal of Muslim unity.
With their historical sense of victimization, such a missionary message is difficult for Shiites. But if old resentments can be forgotten and old offenses forgiven – which Islam teaches – then a Sunni-Shiite accommodation may emerge.
So far, the ongoing violence in Iraq doesn't point to such sectarian peace soon.