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Monday, February 27, 2006

 

NYT: Chaos in Iraq Elevates Iran's Influence

By MICHAEL SLACKMAN - Published: February 27, 2006, New York Times

CAIRO — Shortly before the American-led invasion of Iraq, Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, warned that the attack would "open the gates of hell." Now, three years later, there is a sense in the Middle East that what was once viewed as quintessential regional hyperbole may instead have been darkly prescient.

Iranian students, right, demonstrated outside the British Embassy in Tehran Sunday and condemned the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Iraq.

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

But the bombing, and the prospect of a full-blown civil war driven by sectarian divisions, is even more ominous for the Middle East. Nine Middle Eastern countries 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 Shukri, 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 Iran's 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 increase, local leaders are also 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 a million Iraqis after Saddam Hussein's government fell, and now, faced with serious economic problems, its leaders worry about another flood of refugees rushing 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 already stated its desire to take down the Saudi monarchy.

The Qaeda group in Iraq has already claimed responsibility for a triple bombing in Amman last year, and several political analysts said they believed that 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 earlier 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 will undermine efforts to lift a region stung by high unemployment and economic stagnation.

"Iraq has been like hell for the last three years," said Hesham Youssef, Mr. 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 have often viewed each other with suspicion.

While Sunnis are a 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.

Page two of this New York Times article, including the significance of Iran as the only Shiite-dominated country in the world.


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