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As early as 2004, Jordan's King Abdullah warned of a rising Shi'ite "crescent" running from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Although the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad had the backing of the U.S., in many Arab eyes it represented the expansion of Iran's influence. Sunni Arab leaders have begun to ratchet up their rhetoric against Shi'ites in general and Iran in particular. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2006 said, "Most of the Shi'ites are loyal to Iran and not to the countries they are living in." After a storm of protest from Iraq and elsewhere, Mubarak claimed he had been referring only to matters of religion. In the predominantly Sunni Palestinian territories, supporters of Fatah have taken to branding their Hamas rivals as a Shi'ite organization. In January, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah informed a Kuwaiti newspaper that he had told an Iranian envoy that Iran was interfering in Iraq and endangering the region. King Abdullah also accused Iran of wanting to spread Shi'ism in Sunni countries.
But both sides are responsible for stoking tensions. Religious leaders of the Wahhabi sect, often backed and bankrolled by members of the Saudi royal family, contribute to the spread of sectarian violence by preaching a hard-line form of Sunni Islam that condemns all other strains as heresy. In Pakistan, moderate Muslims blame Wahhabi madrasahs as well as Iranian-funded Shi'ite seminaries for the escalation of Sunni-Shi'ite violence that has claimed more than 4,000 lives in the past two decades. In the latest attacks, three separate suicide bombings killed 21 during the Ashura rituals in January. In Lebanon, sectarian tensions have risen after years of relative calm. Hizballah, the Shi'ite militia, won praise from Sunnis when Israeli forces left Lebanon in 2000. But after the assassination in February 2005 of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, a Sunni, intra-Muslim antagonism began to harden. Sunnis blamed Hizballah's patron, the Syrian government, for the killing. While faulting Hizballah for provoking last summer's war, many Lebanese Sunnis stood with Hizballah in the face of Israel's onslaught against the country. But any residual Sunni admiration for Hizballah vanished by the end of the year, when Hizballah led a campaign to bring down the government of Hariri's longtime friend Fouad Siniora.
Iraq's Sunnis, for their part, have grown adept at playing to wider Middle Eastern concerns about Iran's influence in the region. Sunni politicians stoke these anxieties in the hope that Arab pressure on the Iraqi government will force it to give Sunnis a greater share of power. "If the Arab states don't come to our help, they will find [Iran] at their gate," says Mohammed Bashar al-Faidi, a spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars. "For the sake of the entire Muslim community worldwide, the beast has to be destroyed in Iraq." For leaders of terrorist groups, the fear of a regionwide Shi'ite ascendancy serves as a useful fund-raising tool as well as recruiting propaganda. Radical Sunni preachers and TV talk-show hosts across the Arab world are inflaming sentiments by accusing Iraq's "Persians" of ethnic cleansing. In January, an editorial in al-Ahram, a newspaper widely seen as the voice of the Egyptian state, declared, "Iran is working actively toward spreading the Shi'ite doctrine even in countries that do not have a Shi'ite minority." Iran, in turn, has accused Sunnis of issuing fatwas authorizing the killing of Shi'ites.
The Unbridgeable Chasm
Most Iraqis, caught up in their own terrors, have little time for the angst of the wider Islamic world. Those who can look past the daily horrors see an even more frightening future, in which their children carry today's hatreds into the next generation. With thousands being killed on either side, the nationalist, secular slogans that were long taught in Iraq's schools have lost much of their meaning. And children do not get too many lessons in secularism at home. "When we were kids, my parents taught us that Shi'ites had the wrong idea about Islam but were just misguided, not bad people," says Ayesha Ubaid, 26, a Sunni doctor's assistant whose late husband was a Shi'ite. "But now I hear my brothers and sisters-in-law telling their children, 'Those people killed our uncle and two cousins and stole our ancestral home.'" Her son Mohammed, 8, returned from school one afternoon and angrily asked, "Why did you marry an infidel?"
Ubaid lives with three brothers and their families. In November, they all moved to Adhamiya from Shulla, a mostly Shi'ite neighborhood where she was born. "I knew every brick of every house on my street," she says. "When we left, some of our neighbors cried and promised they would protect our house with their lives. But the next day, a Shi'ite family took the place, and nobody stopped them." Ubaid says she had considered raising Mohammed as a Shi'ite, out of respect for her husband. But now, she says, "that would be inviting disaster." Still, Ubaid says that in her new neighborhood, she feels as safe as it is possible to be in Baghdad.
Will she stay that way? With a large supply of luck, Operation Imposing Law, the new security operation enabled by President George W. Bush's "surge" of U.S. troops, may halt the sectarian fighting in Baghdad long enough for Shi'ites and Sunnis to start mending fences. If all goes according to plan, the Iraqi government will use the respite from violence to launch a massive economic program that will create jobs and improve civic services like electricity and water supply. If the government can do that, says veteran Shi'ite politician Abu Firas al-Saedi, "people won't immediately start hugging each other and become best friends again but at least if they are busy working and making money, they will have time to forget the past." In this optimistic view, the militias won't take their fight from Baghdad to other Iraqi cities, where the U.S. presence is minimal, and any security gains in Baghdad will quickly spread elsewhere.
Conceivably, all that might happen. As Operation Imposing Law got under way on Feb. 14, there were some signs that Shi'ite militias might be reducing their attacks on Sunnis. Al-Sadr has ordered his Mahdi Army to lie low and avoid direct confrontation with American troops. Al-Sadr himself and several of his top commanders are believed to have left for Iran. But few in Baghdad doubt that he will be back. "He is just bending to the wind because he knows his fighters can't face the Americans," says Hussain al-Moed, a rival Shi'ite cleric. "But he also knows that the Americans will leave. The Mahdi Army can afford to wait." Sunni jihadis have kept up their bombing campaign despite the security operation and if they continue to strike against Shi'ite neighborhoods, the Mahdi Army may return to the fight.