Entry of Saudi Forces Fires up Middle East Sunni-Shiite Discord

The introduction of Saudi and other Arab Gulf armies into the Bahrain conflict added a new, ominous dimension to the 2011 Arab Revolt against incumbent regimes. It brought Sunni and Shiite Muslim forces into head-on collision by pitting the Gulf emirates against Iran-backed Shiites, while also sparking intercommunal strife in other Arab countries.
In Tehran, some Iranian strategists appear to be quietly rethinking their assessment that the Saudi royal family would never dare defy Washington by invading Bahrain and that the oil kingdom's armed forces had neither the stomach not the ability to fight.
Some of this confusion was registered in a remark by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday March16 to the effect that Bahrain had made a "strategic mistake" in asking Gulf troops to help quell pro-democracy protests and blaming Washington for the error.
The Iranian president, who appeared to understand that employing Hizballah to stir up trouble in Bahrain may have been a blunder, decided to shift the blame to Washington.
(See separate item in this issue: The Shiite Guerilla War in Bahrain Has Begun)
Clearly, the entry of Saudi forces into Bahrain has caused some fundamental shifts in the region, most of them unforeseen, as summed up by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East experts:


Eastern Saudi Arabia – a military zone
On Monday March 14, as Saudi expeditionary units crossed into Bahrain, Riyadh poured a much bigger force into the oil-rich eastern provinces populated largely by Shiite Muslims.
King Abdullah's son Prince Miteb is the supreme commander of the GCC force operating in Bahrain and the contingents deployed in Eastern Saudi Arabia. He has set up his command headquarters in the main Shiite city of Qatif which sprawls across one of the biggest oases in the world. Saudi units are also posted in the cities fringing the oasis, Dahran, Tamim, Dammam and Jibil, as a living warning to the two million Shiites living there against the slightest attempt to rise up against the throne or stage protest rallies. The entire Shiite enclave looks like a Saudi military zone.
In stirring the Shiites of Bahrain to riot against their king, Tehran certainly did not expect to bring about Saudi military occupation of the largest Shiite region in the Gulf or foresee that the campaign to suppress Bahrain's Shiite would be conducted from Qatif.


Iraq: Najaf challenges Tehran for Shiite primacy
The worsening situation in Bahrain aggravated Shiite-Sunni clashes in Iraq this week. Thursday March 17, thousands of Shiite protesters converged on their holy shrines for a show of solidarity with their coreligionists in the island republic, presenting Iraqi lawmakers with a quandary.
In a press conference in Baghdad, former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, echoed the Iranian line which blamed Washington's indecisiveness and hesitancy for the havoc in Bahrain.
A delegation of Shiite elders from Bahrain arrived meanwhile in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, among them Sheikh Ali al-Hashemi, to raise with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and other Iraqi Shiite clergy, the publication of a fatwa calling for jihad against the Bahraini regime and "the Saudi occupation army."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who knows that the Shiites of Bahrain are closer to Iraqi Shiites than they are to Tehran, understands that such a fatwa would send Shiite contingents of the Iraqi army over to Bahrain to fight alongside the Shiite rebels, with or without his consent.
Such Iraqi military intervention in Bahrain would eventually have a knock-on effect in Iraq and trigger civil strife between the Shiite majority and the Sunni minority.
Tehran would be seriously discomfited by such a fatwa. It would force Iran to draft volunteers to fight in Bahrain at the bidding of the Iraqi hierarchy, thereby shifting the Shiite religious supremacy claimed by Iran to its rivals in Najaf.


Lebanon: Sunni-Shiite clashes
With most of Hizballah's intelligence, logistical and financial resources diverted to promoting the Shiite uprising in Bahrain, its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, was caught unawares Wednesday by the outbreak of bloody clashes between Lebanese Shiites and Sunnis in various parts of Lebanon under the influence of the Bahrain conflict.
This time, full-scale civil strife, always a danger in Lebanon, was barely avoided. But Nasrallah knows that a major domestic conflict would keep Hizballah, Iran's main operational arm in Bahrain, at home at the most critical moment for the conflicts swirling around the Gulf island and its protector, Saudi Arabia.


Syria: Assad makes 3,000 arrests
Bashar Assad has not escaped widening protests in Syrian cities, especially Damascus, against his regime despite savage preventive measures.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reveals here for the first time that Syrian security forces detained more than 3,000 opposition members, a third of them Syrian Kurds, Tuesday and Wednesday March 15-16. Some sources calculate that this massive round-up might well turn the Syrian popular resistance movement into a showdown between the Sunni majority, which includes the Kurds and accounts for 85 percent of the population, and Assad's ruling Alawite sect which makes up only 12 percent of the country. Syrian Sunnis view the Alawites as close to the Shiite denomination of Islam.

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