Early Spillover of Iraq’s Sectarian Strife

Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani this week did something he has never been known to do before: He wrote a confidential letter to an Arab ruler. His purpose was to take sharply to task the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, for standing up two weeks ago and accusing Shiites in Arab countries of placing their loyalty to Tehran above their allegiance to their countries of residence.

Mubarak cast specific aspersions on Sistani’s flock when he said: “Naturally Iran has an influence over Shiites who make up 65 percent of Iraq's population.”

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iraqi sources reveal the ayatollah’s tone was bitter: “As a man who devoted his life to building and preserving the Iraqi Shiite community’s political and religious independence of foreign influence,” he wrote, “and in respect of my long years of experience in dealing with various rulers, I advise you to learn to watch your tongue.”

Sistani’s letter to Mubarak is not the only outer symptom noted by our Middle East sources of the broadening rift under the malignant influence of two crises: the horrendous bloodshed in Iraq and Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon.

The growing distrust is illustrated by four further developments:

1. Saudi Arabia is in advanced negotiations with rival French and British firms for a crash project to construct a 650-km long electronic fence to enclose its border with Iraq. The immediate effect of this barrier will be to cut off the passage between Shiite southern Iraq and the kingdom. Riyadh is looking ahead with trepidation to the prospect of an independent Shiite state in control of its own oil resources rising next door.

2. Iraqi Shiite commanders continue to purge the army of Sunni officers who “presumed” to raise their hands against Shiite militias. Under the official aegis of the dreaded De-Baathification Commission, government and security bodies have in the past two weeks engineered the dismissal of hundreds of Sunni officers from the defense and interior ministries. Among them are General Mahdi Sabih, head of the Iraqi unit guarding government institutions, General Jawad Romi, who ventured to take on in battle the Shiite “death squads” which the Iraqi interior ministry loosed on certain parts of Baghdad, General Latif Taban, commander of the 10th Iraqi Division, and General Hamid Maksusi, intelligence chief of Iraq’s Special Forces.

Given the political impasse over the formation of a national unity government in Baghdad and the unceasing cycle of violence, Iraq is sliding day by day closer to Shiite-Sunni civil war and its eventual fragmentation into two or three entities.

3. King Abdullah of Jordan is trying to organize an Islamic summit from April 22 to 25, without much success. His object is to provide Iraqi Sunni and Shiite religious and tribal leaders with a forum to launch a combined effort to halt the cycle of violence and denounce the extremist interpretations of Islam that feed the bloody conflict. He hopes for a signed declaration declaring that Sunni-Shiite strife has no legitimate basis in Islam.

However, as we write this, the Jordanian monarch still does not know if Iraq’s Shiite leaders will put in an appearance. His organizers are trying to put an optimistic face on the situation, denying reports that Grand Ayatollah Sistani has decided to boycott the occasion, and that that the SCIRI leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim has cancelled his participation. But even they are beginning to accept that most of the Shiite leaders invited to the conference will not turn up.

4. Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora, currently on a four-day visit to Washington, was forced to bring with him to talks with President George W. Bush, the Shiite defense minister, Farzi Saluah.

The heads of the two Shiite militias, Hassan Nasrallah of the Hizballah and Nabih Berri of Amal, threatened the prime minister that if he met the US president without the Shiite defense minister being present, they would stir up enough trouble in Beirut to jeopardize his American visit.

Nasrallah was the most aggressive. He maintained that it was unthinkable for a leader of the minority Maronite community to take upon himself to speak for the majority Shiites.

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