For Arab nations, ominous signs

Posted in Broader Middle East | 27-Feb-06 | Author: Michael Slackman| Source: International Herald Tribune

Iranian students demonstrated outside the British Embassy in Tehran Sunday and condemned the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Iraq.
CAIRO Shortly before the American- led invasion of Iraq, Amr Moussa, head of the League of Arab States, warned the attack would "open the gates of hell." Now, more than three years later, there is a sense around the Middle East that what was once viewed as quintessential regional hyperbole may instead have been darkly prescient.

Even before the bombing of one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines in the Iraqi city of Samarra set off bloody sectarian fighting last Wednesday, the chaos in Iraq helped to elevate Iran's regional influence - a great concern to many of the Sunni-led governments around the region - while also giving Al Qaeda sympathizers a new foothold in the region.

But the bombing itself, and the prospect of a full-blown civil war driven by sectarian divisions, holds even more ominous signs for the Middle East. Nine countries in the region have sizable populations of Shiites living side- by-side with Sunnis, and there is concern in many of them that a split in Iraq could lead to divided allegiances and, perhaps, conflict at home.

"The spillover of this is of concern for everybody in the region," said Ali Shoukri, a retired Jordanian general who for 23 years served as an adviser to King Hussein. "When you take Western Iraq, Anbar Province borders Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia; the southern part of Iraq borders Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran. If there is a conflict, a surge in violence, it becomes contagious in the region."

The rising tensions in Iraq are also happening at a time when two other powerful dynamics are at work: the rise of Islamic political parties, like Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the effort of the Iranian leadership to once again try to spread its ideas around the region. How all these forces combine and ultimately influence each other has become a source of deep worry.

In addition, should fighting escalate, local leaders are bracing for a new influx of refugees and damage to the regional economy. Both factors would have serious consequences for Middle Eastern states that have little or no oil and are already suffering from stagnant economies, including Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Yemen.

The tiny Hashemite kingdom of Jordan absorbed about one million Iraqis after Saddam Hussein's government fell, and now, faced with serious economic problems, its leaders worry about another flood of refugees across the border.

In Saudi Arabia, officials face the dual threat of a restive Shiite population at home and the increased power of the Iraq-based group that calls itself Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which has stated its desire to bring down the Saudi monarchy. The Qaeda group in Iraq claimed responsibility for a triple bombing in Amman last year, and several political analysts said they believed the attempted suicide bombing of a Saudi oil refinery on Friday had its roots in Iraq.

With Egyptians making up a large portion of the foreign fighters in Iraq, and in previous years in Afghanistan, some analysts have asked, "If Al Qaeda aligned forces are successful in breaking apart Iraq, will they try to strike in Egypt?"

Many have expressed concerns about the regional economy, and, if nothing else, have noted that increased violence would undermine efforts to help lift up a region stung by massive unemployment and stagnant economies.

"Iraq has been like hell for the last three years," said Hesham Youssef, Moussa's chief of staff in Cairo. "I think it would surpass any expectation if a civil war erupts. This will go even into a much worse scenario, not only for Iraq, but for the region as well."

The most pressing fear in the region remains that civil war would aggravate the split that tore Islam into two major groups centuries ago, Sunnis and Shiites.

While the original division was caused by a dispute over who would take over as leader, or caliph, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Shiites and Sunnis have developed distinctly different social, political and religious practices over the centuries, and as such have often viewed each other suspiciously.

While Sunnis make up the majority in the region, there are large Shiite populations in Oman, Bahrain, Lebanon, Yemen, Kuwait, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In some places, Shiites are discriminated against.

But in weighing the regional impact of the war in Iraq, and the potential for intra-Muslim conflict, Iran, the only Shiite-led government in the world, clearly looms largest. By many accounts, the shifting dynamics in Iraq have served to strengthen Iran's hand at a time when it is defying Europe and the United States by moving forward with a nuclear program. Iran says it wants to develop nuclear energy; the West says it suspects Iran is trying to build weapons, and has had the International Atomic Energy Agency referred Iran to the United Nations Security Council.

The Iranian leadership has condemned the blast as the work of the Israelis, Americans and British, leveling a charge that aims to rally Muslims behind its leadership. Iran also has called for calm in Iraq, thereby winning grudging appreciation of regional leaders, while it has the chaos in Iraq as a foil to deflect American attention from it nuclear program, analysts across the region said.

"It is true that the elements involved in the explosion were a couple of misled and radical Sunnis," read an editorial in the Iranian daily newspaper Jomhuri-ye Eslami, "but everyone knows that these people are the puppets of the occupying forces - who incur heavy costs, design very accurate plans and encourage such weak persons to do whatever they want. During the past years, these elements have been trained with the budget of America and England in order to have an anti-American face but to be the agents of America. They are in fact the children of the Satan that has occupied Iraq at the moment."

Under almost any scenario, from a democratically elected government in Iraq to a fracturing of the country into ethnic zones, Iran faces the prospect of emerging far more influential regionally than any time since the 1979 revolution, political analysts said.

"There was always a balance between Iraq and Iran," said Abdel Raouf El Reedy, a former ambassador to the United States who now serves as chairman of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, an independent research center in Cairo. "Now if Iraq disintegrates and there is sectarian division between the Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis, then Iran will become the dominant power in the region."

But it is difficult to determine Iran's immediate intentions in Iraq, whether it is a force for calm, an agitator for destabilization, or a bit of both. With the election in June of the ideologically hard- line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran abandoned any conciliatory approach to the West, moving forward with its nuclear program despite protests from Europeans and the United States, and despite having been referred to the United Nations Security Council.

In taking such a confrontational approach, Iran, led by the new president, has tried to reach out to the Arab Muslim world. By calling for Israel to be wiped off the map and calling the Holocaust a myth, the president of Iran has tried to unite the Muslims - Sunni and Shiite - beneath a pan-Islamic umbrella that puts Iran at the helm.

While that rhetoric has left Iran more isolated from the West, it has, increasingly found some degree of unity and support in the region. The recent outrage over the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, which set off more than a month of demonstrations, also helped to unite Muslims in opposition to a common perceived enemy.

That unity, and the prospect of Iran spreading its revolutionary ideas among Sunnis, could be undermined if there is a fevered civil war pitting Iraq's Sunnis against Iraq's Shiite majority.

"If it does start to divide them, then everybody will clinch to power," said Shoukri, the retired general, adding, "They will be at each other necks like crazy because nobody will want to lose."

So far, Iran has stuck to its public script and has attempted to transform the attack on a Shiite shrine - which it condemned - into another point to rally all Muslims. But there are many people around the region who questions Iran's sincerity, and see in the chaos in Iraq, a hand from Tehran.

Mona el-Naggar in Cairo and Nazila Fathi in Tehran contributed reporting.