12 Feb 2011


Crescent in Africa


[ Crescent in Africa brings Persian moonlight ]



Nigeria's other Islamists
Meeting the group that looks to Iran for inspiration

Analysts warn the sheikh's group could become more violent than Boko Haram
"There's nothing like Boko Haram. I have never seen a single man calling himself Boko Haram” - Sheikh Zakzaky, Islamic Movement in Nigeria
Shiekh Zakzaky says he has hundreds of thousands of followers


Shiekh Zakzaky: Why Nigeria could fear an attack on Iran

May 8, 2012

While the Sunni Islamist group Boko Haram makes headlines in Nigeria, a Shia group is also causing anxiety in some quarters, the BBC's Mark Lobel reports from the city of Kaduna.
Saharan sand swirls around us as horses gallop through the film set we are visiting.
Brightly painted walls and wooden and straw weaponry line old forts, recreated to mirror the scene of the brazen Islamic revolution that arrived here in the 19th Century.
I am seeing for myself how media-savvy the mainly-Shia Islamic Movement in Nigeria has become.
Inside the compound, a dubbing operation is under way.
Flattering documentaries of religious leaders are being translated into the local Hausa language, with hundreds of DVDs sold to eager locals every month.
The movement has had a thriving daily newspaper for more than two decades and says it will soon broadcast its internet-based Hausa radio station on the country's main air waves, and start up a new TV channel.
In recent years, the once tiny movement's membership has sky-rocketed in size and scope while all attention has shifted to Boko Haram, the Sunni Islamist group fighting for an Islamic state in Nigeria.

Iranian inspiration

Some are worried that this movement may be growing unchecked by the current ruling powers it condemns as discredited.
Its leader, Shiekh Ibraheem Zakzaky, became a proponent of Shia Islam around the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979.
Events in Iran encouraged him to believe that an Islamic revival was also possible in Nigeria.
Ever since, he has grown increasingly confident he can build a permanent Islamic state within the country.
Although he denies his movement gets any funding from Iran, he is also vehemently anti-American.
When I met the white-bearded, traditionally dressed religious leader, who looked older than his 57 years, he resembled a peaceful, friendly, elder statesman and smiled as he told me that he now has hundreds of thousands of followers.
We sat together on his bright, fluffy pink, red and white rug and an orange-flowered garland framed a hanging portrait of the revolutionary Islamic leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, who watched over us.
But followers here, including Shiekh Zakzaky, are closely watching present-day events in Iran.
The US and Israel threaten to attack the country if fears of a nuclear weapons building programme there are realised, despite Iran's insistence its nuclear ambitions are purely civilian.
I asked the shiekh if Iran were attacked, would it have an impact in Nigeria?
"Not only in Nigeria, in the entire world," he said.
Shiekh Zakzaky did not explain what would happen, but added: "How much the impact would be, would depend on which areas were attacked."

Influential supporters

Throughout our encounter, the vagueness of some of Shiekh Zakzaky's answers - perhaps driven by his apparent mistrust of the media, he separately recorded our conversation in order not to be misquoted - not only leaves many of his statements open to interpretation but also creates the perception he may have something to hide.
Sheikh Zakzaky was a political prisoner for nine years during the 1980s and 1990s, accused by successive military regimes of civil disobedience.
His supporters have been involved in many violent clashes with the state over the decades - 120 of his followers are currently in prison - and political analyst Muhammad Kabir Isa says they do constitute a genuine threat.
Mr Isa, a senior researcher at Ahmadu Bello University, describes the shiekh's movement as "a state within a state".
"I know for one that his outfit embarks on drills, military drills," Mr Isa said.
"But when you embark on military drills, you are drilling with some sort of anticipation. Some form of expectations."
Shiekh Zakzaky later told me his movement did train hundreds of guards to police events, but compared it to teaching karate to the boy scouts.
Mr Isa also alleged the movement's supporters have now become a lot more influential in society.
"I know for example he is making sure his members are recruited into the army, his members are recruited in the police force, he has people working for him in the state security service," he said.
Kaduna state spokesman Saidu Adamu said he could not confirm if the movement's followers were in the police, army or state security services but said he hoped it would not affect their loyalty to the state if they were.

Political party?

The state's relationship with the movement may also determine how peaceful it remains, according to prominent human rights activist Shehu Sani.
He campaigned for Shiekh Zakzaky's release while the cleric was a political prisoner and says the government has to take its share of the blame for the recent violence by Boko Haram, which says it is trying to avenge the 2009 death in police custody of its leader, Mohammed Yusuf.
"If the Nigerian state applied the same measure of cruelty and extrajudicial killings to the members of the Islamic movement as it did to Boko Haram, we would be faced with a violence that's a million times more than that because the Islamic movement's well organised and educated," according to Mr Sani.
The Nigerian government says it is prepared to talk to Boko Haram though it describes it as a faceless organisation with unrealistic demands.
In Shiekh Zakzaky's home town of Kaduna, Boko Haram has directed attacks at both the security forces and locals.
When I met Kaduna's Governor, Patrick Ibrahim Yakowa, to discuss the current security crisis, he told me he wanted to make use of all religious leaders to find a solution urgently.
I asked the governor if he had reached out to Shiekh Zakzaky.
"We are trying to reach out to everybody and I am sure, sooner than later, I will get across to him," he said, underlining a conciliatory approach that has so far not borne results.
In contrast, it looks unlikely that Shiekh Zakzaky would be prepared to engage with the governor.
During our interview, he did say he would consider entering the political process and could, for example, have his own political party, if the system worked.
But he said the current system did not work.
He rather surprisingly blamed that system for causing the current insecurity in the country by insisting Boko Haram was a creation of the "oil-hungry West", whom he accused of using the Nigerian security forces to carry out heinous crimes here.
"Security forces are behind it," he said animatedly.
"There's nothing like Boko Haram. I have never seen a single man calling himself Boko Haram. Our enemies are from outside. And they are the ones behind those bombings."
That theory goes against much of the evidence about the group that does exist, as the government has arrested senior members of the militant outfit and police stations and army barracks are often the targets of attacks.

Quiet for now

Oil analysts insist that the last thing the West would want is instability in the country, which, they say, would in fact jeopardise their operations here. Yet Shiekh Zakzaky's followers, young and old, confidently told me they agreed with his view of who was behind the unrest and were in full support of the shiekh's brand of Islam spreading across the whole of Africa, not just Nigeria. As I watched thousands gather for a weekly Koran class led by Shiekh Zakzaky, women covered in black clothes seated on one side, men in lighter clothes on another, they all appeared peaceful and studious.

The movement does not seem to be an imminent threat to either the government or Nigerian people.
But with a greater allegiance to external powers, and a clear hatred of parts of the West closely tied to the current government, the situation remains precarious.


Hezbollah Takeover


Shia Crescent: Iran moves into Lebanon

25 January 2011

A victory for Hizbollah

Hizbollah's support for Lebanon's new prime minister is a likely tactic to distract from the UN investigation into the murder of Rafik Hariri in 2005.

The appointment of the billionaire Najib Mikati as Lebanon's new prime minister means that Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed militia, has finally achieved its goal of seizing control of one of the region's few democratic and secular countries. It also represents a serious setback for the Western powers that have sought to maintain stability in a country where the scars of a long and brutal civil war have only recently started to heal.

Since its emergence in the early 1980s, Hizbollah has made its name among Lebanon's majority Shia Muslims as an effective resistance force dedicated to the destruction of Israel. More recently, it has sought to transform its popularity into political power, and only narrowly missed out on winning an overall majority in the country's general election in 2009. But claims that a number of senior Hizbollah officials were involved in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed by a car bomb in 2005, have put it on a collision course with Beirut's political establishment. Earlier this month, it brought down the government of Saad Hariri – the son of the murdered premier – in a blatant attempt to suppress publication of a UN investigation into the killing. By supporting Mr Mikati's appointment, Hizbollah is confident that it can kick the UN's findings into the long grass.

It is in everyone's interests, not least those of the Lebanese people, that this wanton disregard for the rule of law is confronted. At the time of his murder, Mr Hariri's widespread popularity was seen as a serious threat to Hizbollah's position as a major force in Lebanese politics. If, as many believe, Hizbollah officials sanctioned his murder for their own political ends, they should be held accountable by a court of law and face the consequences of their actions.


Hillary Clinton: Hizbollah government will damage US relationship with Lebanon

A Hizbollah-backed billionaire has won enough support to become Lebanon's prime minister, in a move that Hillary Clinton said would damage the country's relationship with the US.

Hizbollah managed to forge a coalition to back Najib Mikati after bringing down the government of the pro-American Saad Hariri two weeks ago.

President Barack Obama is likely to retaliate by suspending some or all of its aid to Beirut. The US administration had earmarked $246 million (£156 million) in support this year, including $100 million (£63 million) in military aid and $37 million (£23 million) for counter-terrorism operations.

Hizbollah, which is financially backed by Iran and Syria, is listed as a terrorist entity by Washington.

Mrs Clinton, the US secretary of state, said the power shift would "clearly have an impact on our bilateral relationship."

Israel, which already has Hizbollah ally Hamas on one side, will also be concerned by a Hizbollah-led government likely to insist on a more confrontational approach in the region.

Mr Mikati's appointment, secured after 68 out of 125 members of parliament expressed their support, sparked a "day of rage" in Lebanon, with crowds in Beruit and towns across the north of the country blocking roads, setting tyres on fire and ransacking the offices of a prominent supporter of the new prime minister.

Mr Mikati and the man he replaced, Mr Hariri, are both Sunnis, and the protesters mocked Mr Mikati as a "traitor" for agreeing to work with Hizbollah, an Iranian-backed Shia militant group.

"They are taking us for idiots," said a Rana Fatfat, a Sunni lawyer at a protest. "We will fight them through sit-ins and peaceful protests because we cannot match their military might."

The latest resurgence in Lebanon's bitter, long-running political and civil strife follows Mr Hariri's refusal to disavow a United Nations special tribunal investigating the murder of his father, Rafiq, another billionaire former prime minister.

Mr Hariri senior was killed by a car bomb in 2005, which at the time was widely blamed on Syria. The tribunal is expected to indict Hizbollah members as having carried out the killing.

Mr Mikati will spearhead a policy of non-cooperation with the tribunal however.

Hizbollah's triumph in securing power lay not just in withdrawing 11 sympathetic cabinet members from Mr Hariri's government but in persuading Walid Jumblatt, the long-standing leader of the Druze minority in Lebanon, to switch the votes of his MPs.

It then had to find a friendly Sunni politician to lead the government. Under Lebanon's constitution, the president has to be Christian, the Prime Minister Sunni and the speaker Shia.

Mr Mikati said that being backed by Hizbollah did not make him a "Hizbollah prime minister".

"I will co-operate fully with all Lebanese to form a new government that protects their unity and sovereignty," he said.

Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, also tried to calm Sunni fears that its seizure of the reins of power amounted to a coup.

"The new government will not be a Hizbollah government nor will it be led by Hizbollah," he said. "We don't want power."


Lebanese rally against Hizbollah in 'day of rage'

Thousands of Sunni Muslim in Lebanon have staged protests in a "day of rage" against the Shiite militant group Hizbollah, which is on the brink of taking control of Lebanon's next government.

The largest gathering took place in the northern city of Tripoli on Tuesday, where thousands of people called on Najib Mikati, Hezbollah's candidate for prime minister, not to accept the post and shouted slogans of support for Saad Hariri, the caretaker prime minister.

A senior military official said several armed men fired in the air in west Beirut, but the army intervened and dispersed them. Protesters also torched a truck belonging to al-Jazeera.

Mr Mikati urged calm and said he wanted to represent all of Lebanon. "This is a democratic process," he told reporters. "I want to rescue my country."

But lawmaker Moustafa Alloush said that Hizbollah was trying to "belittle the prime ministry" – a position that under Lebanon's sectarian power sharing system is reserved only for Sunnis."Any person who accepts Hezbollah's appointment of the prime minister is a betrayer of the people of Tripoli," Alloush said at a heated news conference.

Mr Hariri has said he will not join a government headed by a Hizbollah-backed candidate. His Future bloc declared Tuesday would be a day of peaceful protests – but called it a "day of rage" and played on the sectarian dimension of the conflict.

Iranian backed Hizbollah – considered a terrorist organisation by the US – has secured enough support in parliament to name Mr Mikati, Lebanon's former premier, as prime minister.

Hizbollah brought down Hariri's Western-backed government earlier this month, after he refused the group's demand to cease co-operation with a UN-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, his father. Hizbollah denies any role in the killing, but is widely expected to be indicted.

The militant group's Western-backed opponents maintain that having an Iranian proxy in control of Lebanon's government would be disastrous and lead to international isolation.

The United States, which has poured in $720 million in military aid since 2006, has tried to end the influence of Hizbollah, Syria and Iran.

PJ Crowley, the US State Department spokesman, warned that a Hizbollah controlled government in Lebanon would be "problematic."


Hezbollah hails Egypt Revolution

11 Feb 2011

Lebanon's Hezbollah Resistance Movement has congratulated Egyptian people for managing to force President Hosni Mubarak to step down from power.

Describing Mubarak's resignation as an "historic victory” for Egyptians, Hezbollah said on Friday that the movement strongly supports the Egyptian Revolution.

"Hezbollah congratulates the great people of Egypt on this historic and honorable victory, which is a direct result of their pioneering revolution," Hezbollah said in a statement

"It is the unity the people showed in this revolution, women and men, children and adults, which marked the triumph of blood over the sword," it added.

"Hezbollah is filled with pride over the achievements of the Egyptian Revolution."

Hezbollah has invited its supporters to join in a mass celebration.

Hundreds of Lebanese also took to the streets of the capital Beirut following Mubarak's resignation and celebrated the occasion by waving Egyptian flags and with fireworks.

Crowds also gathered outside the Egyptian Embassy in Beirut and voiced their support for the new leadership in Egypt. There were also reports of celebrations in other Lebanese cities, including the northern port city of Tripoli.

On Friday, after 18 days of massive anti-Mubarak protests across Egypt, the Egyptian leader finally stepped down and handed power to the military after 30 years.

However, The transition of power to the military comes while Mubarak, Vice President Omar Suleiman and Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq are all former military men. Analysts believe despite the transition Mubarak would still remain in power.

This is while millions of Egyptians have for the past 18 days called for the departure of Mubarak and the establishment of a democratic government.


Moon hovers Pyramids


News Reports:

Iran’s image influencing Shias in Egypt - The Dawn

[Shi'ites seen as influencing Sunnis in Egypt.]


THE DAWN - November 19, 2006

Iran’s image influencing Shias in Egypt

Iran's rising regional influence has emboldened Egyptian Shias to demand more rights, but has also left them vulnerable under a regime that questions their loyalty and treats all religious groups with suspicion.

The post-Saddam Hussein rise of Iraq's long-downtrodden Shias, the popularity of Lebanon's Hezbollah movement and Iran's growing influence have all contributed to a spectacular regional Shia revival and left many Sunni Arab regimes feeling insecure.“After Hezbollah's victory in the war, the regime started to turn its attention to Shias (in Egypt),” said Ahmed Rasim al-Nafis, an Egyptian Shia and professor of medicine at Mansura University, referring to Hezbollah's 34-day conflict with Israel in July and August.

“There have been smear campaigns about us in the state press and in mosques, and our loyalty has been questioned,” he said from his home in the conservative northern city of Mansura.

There are no reliable figures for Egypt's Shia population. According to a US State Department report on religious freedom published in 2006, they account for less than one per cent of the country's 73 million inhabitants.

But Nafis and others challenge this figure as too high, saying that the lack of a proper census, community centres or separate places of worship makes it virtually impossible to calculate the number.

Nafis, 54, was not born a Shia. He grew up, like the vast majority of Egyptians, a Sunni Muslim.

His interest in Shiaism was sparked by the Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 when he was a fresh graduate. “It was an exciting time,” he said. “The atmosphere was similar to now, and how people look up to Hezbollah and (leader Hassan) Nasrallah. “Nafis began to search for books on Shia Islam, and by 1985 he had read enough to know he wanted to convert.

While Sunni and Shias share the same fundamental beliefs, a split occurred over the Prophet Muhammed's succession. The Shias reject the elected leaders that came after him and believe that Islam's leadership should have gone to Prophet’s son-in-law Ali. Throughout Islamic history, Shias have sought spiritual guidance not from elected Muslim leaders but from the direct line of the prophet.

Nafis explained that what attracted him to Shiaism most was the sect's principle that the door of “Ijtihad” -- the process of interpretation -- was never closed.

He said that Shiaism paves the way for intellectual development, while Sunnism has been “hijacked by Wahhabi (traditionalist Sunni) ideology”.

In 2004, Nafis demanded the recognition of Shiaism as a legal sect in Egypt, but a police crackdown on the community the same year stalled the effort. Al-Azhar — Sunni Islam's main seat of learning — acknowledges Shiaism as a legitimate branch of Islam.

In 1959, then Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Mahmud Shaltut, issued a religious edict, or fatwa, recognising Shiaism as religiously correct.

Egypt's Shias are not a clandestine group: they speak openly in the press of their beliefs and pray freely in Sunni mosques.

But it is political Shiaism and its links with Iran that makes President Hosni Mubarak's regime uncomfortable.

In April Mubarak accused Arab Shias of being “always loyal to Iran and not the countries where they live”.

“The authorities did not waste much time after I converted. I was arrested in 1987 and charged with belonging to a Shia organisation,” said Nafis who was detained three times between 1987 and 1996.

“Whenever something happens in Iran or Iraq, it is reflected on Shias” in Egypt, said Mohammed al-Dereini, head of the Higher Council of the Ahl al-Bait, a Shia research centre based in Cairo.

Dereini voiced his desire in the press to apply to set up a Shia political party, but dropped the initiative following his 15-month detention in 2004 for “belonging to an illegal organisation and threatening national security”.

At least 124 Egyptian Shias have been arrested since 1988 in a series of crackdowns, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

The centre's director, Hossam Bahgat, said there is no policy of Shia persecution in Egypt -- they are treated with suspicion like all other religious groups in the country as a threat that must be contained.

“In the eyes of the security services, there is no clear difference between Shias and a militant religious organisation. They simply don't care that Al-Azhar recognised them,” Bahgat said.

Egypt's opposition Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organisation, also faces systematic arrest and harassment, and thousands of members of militant Islamist groups have been in Egyptian jails for years. “Egyptian security is always scared of religious groups, whatever their sectarian colour,” said Makram Mohammed Ahmed, editor-in-chief of the weekly current affairs magazine Al-Mossawar.—AFP


Shia Crescent



Jordanian King was the first head of state that voiced Arab fears of emerging power of Iran in the world.

In 2004, the King Abdullah II of Jordan said he fears a "Shi'ite Cresent" on the rise in the Middle East.

In 2006, Prime Minister of Britain, Tony Blair, also spoke of an "ARC OF EXTREMISM" being spread by Iran. This "arc" is identified as constituting Iran, Syria, Hizbollah, and Hamas.

In 2008, Sunni religious clerics warned of spread of Shia Islam in Arab heartlands.

See below the reports giving details of the rise of Shi'ite Cresent which began rising in the Middle East since September 11, 2001.

Click on the stories on the side bar to view the relevant articles on the Shia Crescent.


Arab fear of iran


Iranian Conjunction

The idea of a 'Shia Crescent' rising over the Sunni Arab world is not new.

The term gained wide spread use after King of Jordan, Abdullah II, sparked fears that Iran is getting too powerful to handle. Arabs were already beginning to witness how Shiites were influencing events in Middle East.

In March 2003, United States invaded Iraq. Arabs leaders remained silent. They were hoping that U.S. would installed an Arab Sunni as the ruler in Baghdad. U.S. Administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, began his efforts to place a U.S. puppet in power in Iraq. He did not succeed.

The real question is why did U.S. fail in this task that it so easily achieved in Arab capitals, including Baghdad itself in 1979 with the installment of Saddam.

Ayatollah Sistani

In January 2004, top Shiite cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, dashed Arabs leader's hopes of a fellow puppet in Baghdad. The Shiite spiritual leader demanded "free elections" in Iraq in which its people would chose their own leaders. Arab world urged President Bush to quash Shiite aspirations of an "Iranian state" in Iraq. President Bush obliged. U.S. military was given orders to confront Shiite power in Iraq. There were two major battles. American Marines clashed with the Mehdi Army twice in April and August 2004. World's only Super Power had vowed to "destroy the Mehdi Army". U.S. did not succeed against the Shia resistance. Congress admitted that U.S. forces were "not winning" in Iraq. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave up on the idea of a "secular Iraq".

The Shiite militas in Iraq was led by reletavely unknown cleric Moqtada Al Sadr. After two face offs with the U.S. military, Al Sadr proved the strength of his fighters. America realised once again that it was still fultile to fight the Iranians. U.S. gave up attempts to crush the Shiites. President Bush finally conceded to hold free and open elections in accordance with Ayatollah Al Sistani's demands. Arab world was shocked. They now saw the "rise of Shia power" in Iraq. King Abdullah of Jordan feared the spread of Islamic Revolution from Iran to Iraq. The Sunnis were terrified that the "Shia Crescent" was on the rise. In late 2005, Arabs placed their bets on the power of Israel. They hoped that Israel's military would unleash its might against the rising crescent of Tehran. U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, said there will now be a "new Middle East".

In Januray 2006, Iranians sensed that West was planning something big against them. But they said they were prepared. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad couldn't wait: "Its going to be a long summer."

The 33 day Lebanon war began on 12 July 2006. But it did not end as Arab governments had wanted. Their worst fears were realised. On 14 August 2006, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared "Divine Strategic Victory" over Israel. Hezbollah said that there will be a new Middle East but "not as Rice intended". The rest is history. The new moon was now clearly on the horizon. To the horror of Arab leaders, American and Israeli power was declining in the Middle East. Arab rulers felt exposed. A Shia Crescent was waxing their centres of power.

Major newspapers and television networks reported early warnings issued by Arab leaders against the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East.
[HN - July 2010 ]


Crescent Warning

[ King Abdullah II of Jordan, speaks of his fears of a Shia Crescent on the rise.]


The Washington Post - 8 December 2004


Leaders Warn Against Forming Religious State

By Robin Wright and Peter Baker

The leaders of Iraq and Jordan warned yesterday that Iran is trying to influence the Iraqi elections scheduled for Jan. 30 to create an Islamic government that would dramatically shift the geopolitical balance between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East.

Iraqi President Ghazi Yawar charged that Iran is coaching candidates and political parties sympathetic to Tehran and pouring "huge amounts of money" into the campaign to produce a Shiite-dominated government similar to Iran's.

Jordanian King Abdullah said that more than 1 million Iranians have crossed the 910-mile border into Iraq, many to vote in the election -- with the encouragement of the Iranian government. "I'm sure there's a lot of people, a lot of Iranians in there that will be used as part of the polls to influence the outcome," he said in an interview.

The king also charged that Iranians are paying salaries and providing welfare to unemployed Iraqis to build pro-Iranian public sentiment. Some Iranians, he added, have been trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards and are members of militias that could fuel trouble in Iraq after the election.

"It is in Iran's vested interest to have an Islamic republic of Iraq . . . and therefore the involvement you're getting by the Iranians is to achieve a government that is very pro-Iran," Abdullah said.

If pro-Iran parties or politicians dominate the new Iraqi government, he said, a new "crescent" of dominant Shiite movements or governments stretching from Iran into Iraq, Syria and Lebanon could emerge, alter the traditional balance of power between the two main Islamic sects and pose new challenges to U.S. interests and allies.

"If Iraq goes Islamic republic, then, yes, we've opened ourselves to a whole set of new problems that will not be limited to the borders of Iraq. I'm looking at the glass half-full, and let's hope that's not the case. But strategic planners around the world have got to be aware that is a possibility," Abdullah added.

Iran and Iraq have Shiite majorities. But modern Iraq, formed after World War I, has been ruled by its Sunni minority. Syria is ruled by the minority Allawites, an offshoot of Shiism. Shiites are the largest of 17 recognized sects in Lebanon, and Hezbollah is a major Shiite political party, with the only active militia.

Abdullah, a prominent Sunni leader, said the creation of a new Shiite crescent would particularly destabilize Gulf countries with Shiite populations. "Even Saudi Arabia is not immune from this. It would be a major problem. And then that would propel the possibility of a Shiite-Sunni conflict even more, as you're taking it out of the borders of Iraq," the king said.

Iran has bonds with Iraq through their Shiite populations. Thousands of Iranians make pilgrimages to the holiest Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala. Iraq's most prominent Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is Iranian-born and speaks Arabic with a Persian accent. Yet Iran and Iraq fought a brutal eight-year war with more than a million casualties.

Iran has faced charges in the past of meddling in Iraq, but with the election approaching, Iraqi, U.S. and Arab officials have begun to make specific accusations and issue warnings about the potential impact.

"Unfortunately, time is proving, and the situation is proving, beyond any doubt that Iran has very obvious interference in our business -- a lot of money, a lot of intelligence activities and almost interfering daily in business and many [provincial] governates, especially in the southeast side of Iraq," Yawar said in an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters.

The interim Iraqi president, a Sunni leader from a tribe with Sunnis and Shiites, said Iraq's first democratic government must reject pressure to inject religion into politics. "We cannot have a sectarian or religious government," he said. "We really will not accept a religious state in Iraq. We haven't seen a model that succeeded."

The question of Iraq's political orientation -- secular or religious -- will come to a head when Iraq begins writing a new constitution next spring. Jordan's king said he had started to raise a "red flag" about the dangers of mixing church and state.

Abdullah said the United States had communicated its concern to Iran through third parties, although he predicted a showdown. "There's going to be some sort of clash at one point or another," he said. "We hope it's just a clash of words and politics and not a clash of civilizations or peoples on the ground. We will know a bit better how it will play out after the [Iraqi] election."

In Baghdad, interim Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih warned neighboring governments that Iraq is losing patience with them for not doing more to stop the insurgency, which undermines the prospects for peaceful elections.

"There is evidence indicating that some groups in some neighboring countries are playing a direct role in the killing of the Iraqi people, and such a thing is not acceptable to us," Salih said. "We have reached a stage in which, if we do not see a real response from those countries, then we are obliged to take a decisive stance."

Violence continues to generate skepticism about whether legitimate elections can be held in two months. After talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he "cannot imagine" how elections can go forward.

But after meeting with President Bush on Monday, Yawar and Abdullah said they are committed to pressing fellow Sunnis to drop threats to boycott the elections and move quickly to register candidates.

The Jordanian monarch said sitting out the election would only hurt Sunnis. "My advice to the Sunnis in Iraq, and that I will make public, is to get engaged, get into the system and do the best that you can come January 30," he said. "If you don't and you lose out, then you only have yourselves to blame."

The Iraqi president said there is no point in delaying elections, as Sunni leaders have urged. "Extending the election date will just prolong our agony," he said. He predicted Sunnis will ultimately participate, adding that many of the same leaders agitating against the Jan. 30 date have begun preparing their own campaigns.

Yawar said he is putting together a balanced, "all-Iraqi list" of candidates that would cross sectarian lines, in apparent contrast to the Shiite-dominated candidate slate.

A civil engineer educated at George Washington University, he expressed hope that U.S. troops could begin withdrawing from Iraq by the end of 2005 if Iraqi authorities train enough of their own troops.

"When we have our security forces qualified and capable of taking the job, then we will start seeing the beginning of decreasing forces, and that's in hopefully a year's time," he said. But he would not indicate when he hoped the last U.S. soldiers would leave. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters this week he expected the U.S. military to withdraw within four years.


[ Jordan affraid of Iran ]


The Washington Post - November 17, 2006



A new wave of admiration for Hezbollah and an influx of thousands of Iraqi Shiite refugees has caused fears this staunch U.S. ally could face growing Shiite - and perhaps Iranian - influence.

Sunni Muslim clerics and Jordanian officials have expressed worry that support for Hezbollah _ high since the Shiite group's war with Israel _ could encourage Jordanians, who are overwhelmingly Sunni, to convert to the Shiite branch of Islam.

The officials worry that could boost support for Iran, whose influence is considered a threat to Sunni-dominated governments like Jordan's throughout the Middle East. Such fears have existed in Jordan ever since the war in neighboring Iraq took a sectarian slant, with Sunnis and Shiites engaged in reprisal killings that some say veer toward outright civil war.

In 2004, Jordan's King Abdullah II warned that Iran was seeking to establish "a Shiite crescent" including Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Since the Israeli-Hezbollah fighting in Lebanon, he has noted that many in the Arab world now consider the guerrillas as heroes.

The fears have become more widespread _ and sharper _ in recent months, with the influx of some 800,000 Iraqi refugees since the war began, even though they include a large proportion of Sunnis.

Last month, the government deported some Iraqi Shiites, apparently for practicing self-flagellation rituals at a Shiite shrine outside Amman. Jordan permits Shiites to worship but not to whip themselves and shed blood, as occurs in some ceremonies.

Jordanian authorities have also rejected requests from Iraqi residents to establish a Shiite mosque, according to two security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivities. The officials said Jordanian security suspected the mosque would become a center for spreading Shiite theology.

Since the Israeli-Hezbollah war, newspaper reports have circulated in the Middle East that a growing number of Sunnis have become Shiites as an expression of support for Hezbollah. The reports have been impossible to substantiate, but the worry among security officials and clerics reflects the deep distrust among Sunni leaders over Shiite intentions.

A Sunni researcher in Amman said he believes there have been dozens of Sunni converts to the Shiite sect, but he had no precise figure. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Some Sunni clerics say the lack of evidence could be due to "taqiyya," an Islamic doctrine used by Shiites to conceal their faith when under threat. One Sunni cleric here insisted, without proof, that Iran has a secret plan to use Shiite conversions to infiltrate Arab societies and cause trouble.

He contended that about half the estimated 800,000 Iraqis who had fled their country for Jordan are Shiites and could be used by the Iranians as missionaries. He also spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is so sensitive.

For a Sunni to convert to the Shiite sect is a simple process. A Sunni can start going to a Shiite mosque and adopt the sect's manner of performing Islamic rites. For a more formal conversion, a Sunni can go to a Shiite cleric and declare his belief that the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law Ali is his rightful heir, which Sunnis do not believe.

The number of Iraqi Shiites who have entered Jordan is impossible to verify since Jordanian officials have not said what percentage of the refugees they believe are Sunni or Shiite.

But any influx of Shiites would hugely inflate their presence in Jordan, since Shiites account for less than 1 percent of the country's population of 6 million. More than 90 percent of Jordanians are Sunnis and the rest Christians.

Public support for Hezbollah in Jordan is high, particularly among the estimated 1.8 million Palestinians who live here. They express admiration for Hezbollah because of the group's military successes against Israel at a time when Arab governments show little interest in armed confrontation.

Other Hezbollah admirers insist their support for the Shiite guerrillas would never lead them to abandon their Sunni faith.

"There is growing sympathy toward Hezbollah...We sympathize with whoever fights Israel," said Abdul-Wahab al-Nawayseh, 65, a Jordanian Sunni. "But the issue is political and has no sectarian roots."

Mohammed Shafout, 60, of Baqaa, said Palestinians were yearning for someone to stand up to Israel, but contended Jordanian society was too traditional to become fertile ground for Shiite missionaries.

"Shiism is only in the imagination of some people who want to portray it as an Iranian influence," he said.

PHOTOGRAPH: The head of Iraq's influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars Harith al-Dhari, front, is seen in front of his house in Amman, Jordan, Friday, Nov. 17, 2006. Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, a Shiite, issued a warrant on Thursday night, declaring on state television that al-Dhari was wanted for inciting terrorism and violence. Al-Dhari said Friday that the Iraqi government's bid to arrest him was illegal and a reflection of its failure to provide security.


US distrusts Iran


New Reports:

As Mideast realigns, U.S. leans Sunni
US says Iran arming Sunni groups - BBC
U.S. Arming Sunni Insurgents in Iraq - NYT

[ After a longest year 2006 in Iraq, U.S. panics and feels safe with Sunni rulers it had supported for decades. "Better the Devil you know than the Devil you dont", America sticks with Arab leaders against Persian Ayatollahs. After 2006, U.S. begins to provide weapons to the Sunni fighters in Iraq. No doubt combat training was also given to the Iraqi insurgents.]


As Mideast realigns, U.S. leans Sunni

By Howard LaFranchi - 10.12.2007

The White House is re-embracing Sunni authoritarian regimes to counter the rise of Shi'i Iran.

WASHINGTON - Americans are hearing much less from the Bush administration about democracy for the Middle East than they did a year ago. As Shi'i Iran rises, the White House has muted its calls for reform in the region as it redirects policy to reembrace Sunni Arab allies who run, to varying degrees, authoritarian regimes.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 shifted the balance of power in the Middle East, delivering a Shi'i-led government to a country that had for decades been dominated by its minority Sunnis. That, in turn, opened the door to Iranian expansion.

To contain Tehran, Washington is now reaching out to Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, Egypt, and Jordan, in the form of large arms deals and new talks on such issues as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which in the eyes of most Arabs and many others remains the greatest source of tension and support for extremists in the region.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travels again to the region next week, underscoring the administration's drive for progress on Middle East peace.

Also, a significant U.S. shift toward Iraq is under way. American policy is moving from bolstering the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as a way to force action on political issues to a "bottom-up" approach. This has led to the funding and arming of Sunni tribes and communities in Anbar Province that until recently targeted U.S. forces.

"If you look at it in the context of this Sunni-Shi'a sectarian divide and the fault line that divides the region, we are in effect adjusting our position," says Martin Indyk, a former U.S. diplomat now at the Brookings Institution in Washington, referring to the broader implications of the new American path in Iraq.

Having paved the way for Iraq's Shi'a to take power, he says, "We find ourselves in a situation where that plays to Iran's advantage and to the disadvantage of our erstwhile Sunni Arab allies in the Arab world."

The result of this belated realization, Mr. Indyk says, is that "we are adjusting ourselves to the point where we line up with the Sunnis against the Shi'a in this broader sectarian divide."

Some experts in the region suggest the reaffirming of ties to America's traditional Arab allies is not so much a sectarian question as more simply a reemphasis on longtime U.S. security interests in the region.

The Bush administration has concluded that those interests energy security, counterterrorism, and stability ? are best served by working with the Arab regimes that happen to be Sunni, they say, but not because of some Sunni-over-Shi'a shift.

"It's more Arab-Persian than it is Sunni-Shi'a," says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, highlighting the effort to contain Persian Iran that underpins interests. "It's not sectarian," he adds, "it's realpolitik."

Others agree that the U.S. adjustment has more to do with a retreat from grand goals in the face of Iran's rise, than with changing sides in a sectarian divide.

"We have Condoleezza Rice backing off from supporting democratic reform in the region, and the more messianic goals of the first Bush administration have been abandoned, but that's because they don't work," says Michael Hudson, a specialist in international relations at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

"When you talk to diplomats from places like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, it's not Shi'a, it's Iran and the power vacuum it's filling that worries them, and that's what the U.S. is tapping into," he says.

That said, Arab leaders, including Jordan's King Abdullah, have raised concerns about the rise of a "Shi'i arc" in the region as a Shi'i dominated government friendly to Iran took the reins in Baghdad. And Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah warned Vice President Dick Cheney during a visit last year that his country could enter the Iraqi conflict on the side of Iraqi Sunnis if the U.S. left Iraq and abandoned them.

It is in that context that some experts like Brookings's Indyk see at least part of the U.S. motivation for arming some of the same Sunni tribesmen, in places like Anbar, whose doors U.S. troops were kicking down not so long ago.

"We find ourselves regionally in a situation which is somewhat similar to what we are doing in Anbar Province," he says. "We are lining up the Sunnis to better take on the Iranians."

But another explanation for that support has more to do with turning Iraq's Sunnis against Al Qaeda-associated forces in Iraq ? which are also Sunni, others note.

"I would call what we are doing in Anbar more of a tactic than a strategy, and it is not something we are doing because they are Sunnis, but because they are tribesmen ? and tribesmen who are against other Sunnis who are called Al Qaeda," says Mr. Hudson.

CSIS's Mr. Alterman says Saudi Arabia is "using sectarian proxies to fight a national war in Iraq," but he says it does not follow that the U.S. is working with Anbar's Sunnis out of sectarian motivations.

"We're not doing that for them, we're doing it for us" in pursuit of our fight with Islamist extremists, he says.

Some in the U.S. government are using the "progress" the U.S. has made in Anbar to argue specifically for creation of a Sunni-dominated region within a united Iraq.

In a statement last month following the appearance of Gen. David Petraeus before Congress, U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas called on the U.S. to promote the development of a Sunni region to help Sunnis move forward with a greater reliance on local, rather than national, institutions.

"We should not wait for national reconciliation to take advantage of the bottom-up political progress in Anbar and create a Sunni region that would play an integral role in a united Iraq," said Senator Brownback, who is a Republican candidate for president.

Brownback joined Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, who is also a candidate for president, in cowriting an "Iraq Federalism Amendment" that passed with overwhelming Senate support (75 to 23) on Sept. 26.

The amendment calls for the U.S. to press Iraqis to employ the federalism enshrined in their own constitution and divide the country into sectarian regions. The bill specifically calls on the administration to convene a conference for Iraqis to reach a comprehensive political settlement widely recognized as the key to ending Iraq's strife based on federalism.

Senator Biden unveiled last year his plan for Iraq to be divided into three autonomous regions Shi'i, Sunni, and Kurd ? under a federal government. After the Senate endorsed that plan last month, both the Maliki government and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad criticized it as an imposition on Iraq's sovereignty and a recipe for Iraq's partition.

Biden counters that the plan is a realistic response to political conditions on the ground in Iraq "and in fact the only hope for keeping Iraq together."


BBC - 11 April 2007

US says Iran arming Sunni groups

The US military has for the first time accused Iran of arming Sunni militants fighting in Iraq.

Sunni militants are being armed with Iranian-made munitions, US military spokesman Maj Gen William Caldwell told reporters in Baghdad.

These include mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades, he said.

There was no immediate reaction from the government in mainly Shia Iran which has been accused of arming fellow Shia militants in Iraq in the past.

Training claim

The weapons, which were shown at the news conference, were discovered in a car in a Sunni district of Baghdad last week, the Americans said.

Gen Caldwell said the Iranians were not only supplying weapons to unspecified groups fighting the coalition and Iraqi government forces but training them too.

"There are groups that are receiving training in Iran with the most modern weapons and munitions that are available and then being smuggled into Iraq and being utilised by these groups against the Iraqi security force and coalition forces," he said.

"That required some very skilled training to be able to use them and employ them like they were being used."

Iran threat

Gen Caldwell also accused the Iranians of helping Iraqi militants use roadside bombs, which have been used to devastating effect in ambushes on US and coalition forces.

The devices have so far killed more than 170 US soldiers since the Iraq invasion in 2003.

The BBC's Jim Muir says the Iraqi government is hoping a planned conference in Egypt next month will defuse tensions with its neighbours, and perhaps even start a reconciliation process between the Americans and Iran.

But now Iran is threatening to pull out of the talks, as they are demanding the release of five Iranian officials seized by the Americans from an office in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq in January, our correspondent says.

The US on Wednesday ruled out freeing the five, who it accuses of meddling in Iraqi affairs.

The White House also denied Iranian state television reports it tortured a diplomat held in custody for two months.


NEW YORK TIMES - 11 June 2007

U.S. Arming Sunni Insurgents in Iraq

With the four-month-old increase in American troops showing only modest success in curbing insurgent attacks, American commanders are turning to another strategy that they acknowledge is fraught with risk: arming Sunni Arab groups that have promised to fight militants linked with Al Qaeda who have been their allies in the past.

American commanders say they have successfully tested the strategy in Anbar Province west of Baghdad and have held talks with Sunni groups in at least four areas of central and north-central Iraq where the insurgency has been strong. In some cases, the American commanders say, the Sunni groups are suspected of involvement in past attacks on American troops or of having links to such groups. Some of these groups, they say, have been provided, usually through Iraqi military units allied with the Americans, with arms, ammunition, cash, fuel and supplies.

American officers who have engaged in what they call outreach to the Sunni groups say many of them have had past links to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia but grew disillusioned with the Islamic militants’ extremist tactics, particularly suicide bombings that have killed thousands of Iraqi civilians. In exchange for American backing, these officials say, the Sunni groups have agreed to fight Al Qaeda and halt attacks on American units. Commanders who have undertaken these negotiations say that in some cases, Sunni groups have agreed to alert American troops to the location of roadside bombs and other lethal booby traps.

But critics of the strategy, including some American officers, say it could amount to the Americans’ arming both sides in a future civil war. The United States has spent more than $15 billion in building up Iraq’s army and police force, whose manpower of 350,000 is heavily Shiite. With an American troop drawdown increasingly likely in the next year, and little sign of a political accommodation between Shiite and Sunni politicians in Baghdad, the critics say, there is a risk that any weapons given to Sunni groups will eventually be used against Shiites. There is also the possibility the weapons could be used against the Americans themselves.

American field commanders met this month in Baghdad with Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, to discuss the conditions Sunni groups would have to meet to win American assistance. Senior officers who attended the meeting said that General Petraeus and the operational commander who is the second-ranking American officer here, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, gave cautious approval to field commanders to negotiate with Sunni groups in their areas.

One commander who attended the meeting said that despite the risks in arming groups that have until now fought against the Americans, the potential gains against Al Qaeda were too great to be missed. He said the strategy held out the prospect of finally driving a wedge between two wings of the Sunni insurgency that had previously worked in a devastating alliance — die-hard loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s formerly dominant Baath Party, and Islamic militants belonging to a constellation of groups linked to Al Qaeda.

Even if only partly successful, the officer said, the strategy could do as much or more to stabilize Iraq, and to speed American troops on their way home, as the increase in troops ordered by President Bush late last year, which has thrown nearly 30,000 additional American troops into the war but failed so far to fulfill the aim of bringing enhanced stability to Baghdad. An initial decline in sectarian killings in Baghdad in the first two months of the troop buildup has reversed, with growing numbers of bodies showing up each day in the capital. Suicide bombings have dipped in Baghdad but increased elsewhere, as Qaeda groups, confronted with great American troop numbers, have shifted their operations elsewhere.

The strategy of arming Sunni groups was first tested earlier this year in Anbar Province, the desert hinterland west of Baghdad, and attacks on American troops plunged after tribal sheiks, angered by Qaeda strikes that killed large numbers of Sunni civilians, recruited thousands of men to join government security forces and the tribal police. With Qaeda groups quitting the province for Sunni havens elsewhere, Anbar has lost its long-held reputation as the most dangerous place in Iraq for American troops.

Now, the Americans are testing the “Anbar model” across wide areas of Sunni-dominated Iraq. The areas include parts of Baghdad, notably the Sunni stronghold of Amiriya, a district that flanks the highway leading to Baghdad’s international airport; the area south of the capital in Babil province known as the Triangle of Death, site of an ambush in which four American soldiers were killed last month and three others abducted, one of whose bodies was found in the Euphrates; Diyala Province north and east of Baghdad, an area of lush palm groves and orchards which has replaced Anbar as Al Qaeda’s main sanctuary in Iraq; and Salahuddin Province, also north of Baghdad, the home area of Saddam Hussein.

Although the American engagement with the Sunni groups has brought some early successes against Al Qaeda, particularly in Anbar, many of the problems that hampered earlier American efforts to reach out to insurgents remain unchanged. American commanders say the Sunni groups they are negotiating with show few signs of wanting to work with the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. For their part, Shiite leaders are deeply suspicious of any American move to co-opt Sunni groups that are wedded to a return to Sunni political dominance.

With the agreement to arm some Sunni groups, the Americans also appear to have made a tacit recognition that earlier demands for the disarming of Shiite militia groups are politically unachievable for now given the refusal of powerful Shiite political parties to shed their armed wings. In effect, the Americans seem to have concluded that as long as the Shiites maintain their militias, Shiite leaders are in a poor position to protest the arming of Sunni groups whose activities will be under close American scrutiny.

But officials of Mr. Maliki’s government have placed strict limits on the Sunni groups they are willing to countenance as allies in the fight against Al Qaeda. One leading Shiite politician, Sheik Khalik al-Atiyah, the deputy Parliament speaker, said in a recent interview that he would rule out any discussion of an amnesty for Sunni Arab insurgents, even those who commit to fighting Al Qaeda. Similarly, many American commanders oppose rewarding Sunni Arab groups who have been responsible, even tangentially, for any of the more than 29,000 American casualties in the war, including more than 3,500 deaths. Equally daunting for American commanders is the risk that Sunni groups receiving American backing could effectively double-cross the Americans, taking weapons and turning them against American and Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government forces.

Americans officers acknowledge that providing weapons to breakaway rebel groups is not new in counterinsurgency warfare, and that in places where it has been tried before, including the French colonial war in Algeria, the British-led fight against insurgents in Malaya in the early 1950s, and in Vietnam, the effort often backfired, with weapons given to the rebels being turned against the forces providing them. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Third Infantry Division and leader of an American task force fighting in a wide area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers immediately south of Baghdad, said at a briefing for reporters on Sunday that no American support would be given to any Sunni group that had attacked Americans. If the Americans negotiating with Sunni groups in his area had “specific information” that the group or any of its members had killed Americans, he said, “The negotiation is going to go like this: ‘You’re under arrest, and you’re going with me.’ I’m not going to go out and negotiate with folks who have American blood on their hands.”

One of the conditions set by the American commanders who met in Baghdad was that any group receiving weapons must submit its fighters for biometric tests that would include taking fingerprints and retinal scans. The American conditions, senior officers said, also include registering the serial numbers of all weapons, steps the Americans believe will help in tracing fighters who use the weapons in attacks against American or Iraqi troops. The fighters who have received American backing in the Amiriya district of Baghdad were required to undergo the tests, the officers said.

The requirement that no support be given to insurgent groups that have attacked Americans appeared to have been set aside or loosely enforced in negotiations with the Sunni groups elsewhere, including Amiriya, where American units that have supported Sunni groups fighting to oust Al Qaeda have told reporters they believe that the Sunni groups include insurgents who had fought the Americans. The Americans have bolstered Sunni groups in Amiriya by empowering them to detain suspected Qaeda fighters and approving ammunition supplies to Sunni fighters from Iraqi Army units.

In Anbar, there have been negotiations with factions from the 1920 Revolution Brigades, a Sunni insurgent group with strong Baathist links that has a history of attacking Americans. In Diyala, insurgents who have joined the Iraqi Army have told reporters that they switched sides after working for the 1920 group. And in an agreement announced by the American command on Sunday, 130 tribal sheiks in Salahuddin met in the provincial capital, Tikrit, to form police units that would “defend” against Al Qaeda.

General Lynch said American commanders would face hard decisions in choosing which groups to support. “This isn’t a black and white place,” he said. “There are good guys and bad guys and there are groups in between,” and separating them was a major challenge. He said some groups that had approached the Americans had made no secret of their enmity.

“They say, ‘We hate you because you are occupiers’ ” he said, “ ‘but we hate Al Qaeda worse, and we hate the Persians even more.’ ” Sunni militants refer to Iraq’s Shiites as Persians, a reference to the strong links between Iraqi Shiites and the Shiites who predominate in Iran.

An Iraqi government official who was reached by telephone on Sunday said the government was uncomfortable with the American negotiations with the Sunni groups because they offered no guarantee that the militias would be loyal to anyone other than the American commander in their immediate area. “The government’s aim is to disarm and demobilize the militias in Iraq,” said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a political adviser to Mr. Maliki. “And we have enough militias in Iraq that we are struggling now to solve the problem. Why are we creating new ones?”

Despite such views, General Lynch said, the Americans believed that Sunni groups offering to fight Al Qaeda and halt attacks on American and Iraqi forces met a basic condition for re-establishing stability in insurgent-hit areas: they had roots in the areas where they operated, and thus held out the prospect of building security from the ground up. He cited areas in Babil Province where there were “no security forces, zero, zilch,” and added: “When you’ve got people who say, ‘I want to protect my neighbors,’ we ought to jump like a duck on a june bug.”

Fatwa against Shiites


News Reports:

Saudi clerics criticize Shiites for destabilizing

[ Spread of Shia faith alarms Sunni clerics ]


MSNBC - 1 June 2008


The accusations come just days before a Muslim interfaith conference

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia.

AP - Hardline Sunni clerics accused Shiites Sunday of destabilizing Muslim countries and humiliating Sunnis, just days before a Muslim interfaith conference called by Saudi Arabia's king.

The attacks on Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah — though contrary to official policy — highlight the sharp, growing distrust between Islam's two arms, and its potential to cause more unrest.

In a strongly worded statement, the 22 clerics savaged Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants, saying the Lebanese Shiite group has tricked other Muslims into believing it is against Jews and Americans.

The statement appeared on several Web sites Sunday, including one run by Sheik Nasser al-Omar, one of the signers. The 22 clerics are known for their radical views and have previously released virulent anti-Shiite statements.

A Saudi official told The Associated Press that the clerics who issued the statement do not represent the official Saudi religious establishment, and their views do not reflect those adopted by the government. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Growing Sunni distrust of Shiites

But the clerics' anti-Shiite diatribe reflects growing Sunni distrust of Shiites and Iran. The trend surfaced with the sectarian unrest in Iraq over the past year and escalated dramatically after Hezbollah, in a show of force, overran predominantly Sunni areas of Beirut last month.

Al-Qaida's No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri has accused Iran in recent messages of seeking to extend its power in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and through its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.

In their statement the clerics accused Shiites of abusing Sunnis under their control.

"If they (Shiites) have a country, they humiliate and exert control in their rule over Sunnis," said the clerics, specifically citing Iran and Iraq. "They sow strife, corruption and destruction among Muslims and destabilize security in Muslim countries ... such as Yemen."

The Yemeni government is engaged in a fight against rebels from the al-Zaydi sect of Shiite Islam and officials in Yemen and Saudi Arabia suspect Iran of supporting the insurgency.

Najib al-Khonaizi, a Saudi Shiite writer, called the statement "dangerous" and damaging to national unity.

"This statement in its essence is a cheap call for incitement," he told the AP. Shiites make up an estimated 10-15 percent of Saudi Arabia's 22 million people

The statement is potentially embarrassing for the government because it comes a few days before the opening of a much-touted Muslim interfaith conference in the holy city of Mecca that aims at closing Muslim ranks and discussing dialogue with other faiths. Over 500 Islamic scholars — reportedly including former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani — are expected to attend the three-day conference, which begins Wednesday.

The event is the first step of a wider interfaith dialogue between Muslims and adherents of other religions, notably Christians and Jews, that King Abdullah called for a few months ago.

Saudi Arabia, which follows the severe Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam that considers Shiites infidels, is worried by the growing regional influence of Iran's Shiite government and its allies in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon.

Iraq war rekindling Sunni-Shiite divide

The 2003 U.S-led war to topple Saddam Hussein's Sunni-run regime in Iraq has rekindled the centuries-old divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

The historic split, which resulted from a succession dispute after Prophet Muhammad's death in 632, reopened in Iraq as Sunni extremists began targeting Shiites allied with the U.S. in Iraq, who retaliated with death squad killings of their own.

As the numbers of Sunnis killed by shadowy Shiite death squads in Iraq mounted, outrage grew around the region, reaching its peak when tensions between Lebanon's sects flared into gun battles in May.

Some Arab media outlets and Web sites have portrayed the Lebanese street fights as a Shiite incursion against Sunnis — a claim Hezbollah has denied. They have also said that Hezbollah and its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, have lost the admiration they won across the Arab world when the group bombarded northern Israel with nearly 4,000 rockets during a 34-day war with Israel in summer 2006.

"Today, more than 200 million Arabs see him (Nasrallah) as fighting the Sunni enemy," wrote Abdul-Rahman al-Rashed, head of the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV, in Asharq al-Awsat newspaper a week after violence erupted in Lebanon.

"Nasrallah ... has pushed the region into a Sunni-Shiite conflict for at least the next 10 years, not only in Lebanon, but also in the rest of the Arab and perhaps Islamic world," he added. "Millions of Sunnis feel that he has gone too far in humiliating Sunnis."


Shiites Rising


News Reports:

The waxing of the Shi'ite Crescent - AT

[As Iran gets stronger on world stage, Shiites make waves across the Sunni world.]


ASIA TIMES - 20 April 2005

The waxing of the Shi'ite Crescent

Since the Islamic revolution took place in Iran in 1979, one of its prime objectives was to strengthen Shi'ites all over the Muslim world. Before that revolution, they were a disinherited, underprivileged and neglected community in Lebanon and Iraq.

This "Shi'ite emancipation" was first done in Lebanon, through the charismatic cleric Musa al-Sadr, who was funded and supported by the mullahs of Tehran in his "Movement of the Dispossessed" and its military branch, Amal, created in 1974 and 1975, respectively.

They later supported Hezbollah, a pure Iranian creation, that strove at first to establish a theocracy in Lebanon, similar to the one in Iran. In time, the role of Hezbollah became to defend the Shi'ite community in Lebanon, rather than bring them to power in Beirut, and safeguard their political rights in the complex confessional system of Lebanon.

In Iraq, the mullahs began to fund, train, protect and harbor Shi'ite dissidents opposed to the regime of Saddam Hussein, where they were oppressed by the Sunni minority. Ibrahim Jaafari, the new prime minister, who is the de facto ruler of the new Iraq, spent the years 1980-89 as a fugitive in Iran.

After 25 years of underground struggle, this community succeeded in toppling Saddam, ironically, with the help of the US. The overthrow of Saddam, the newfound status of the Shi'ites in Iraq, their victory in the January 2005 elections, and the election of Jaafari were all well received in Tehran. They summed up what Iran had wanted in Iraq since 1979.

Jaafari, who has been active in Shi'ite politics since 1968, raises hopes throughout the Muslim world that struggle, persecution and long years of banishment will not prevent the Shi'ites from rising to power in their respective communities, just like they did in Iran in 1979, and Iraq in 2003. A member of the pan-Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance, and a brother-in-law of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Jaafari's appointment as premier raises more than an eyebrow in the Arab world.

The Shi'ites and Syria

Syria's relationship with Iran and its Shi'ites has always been a strategic one, based on pragmatism and mutual interests rather than pan-Shi'ite loyalties, as was the case with Lebanon and Iraq. The Shi'ite community in Syria is small and has no history of political ambitions. They are first-class citizens, and occupy several senior posts - as Syrians, however, and not as Shi'ite Syrians.

Among the most prominent are Dr Hani Murtada, the current minister of higher education, who had been president of Damascus University and is one of the finest pediatricians in Syria, and comedian and political satirist Duraid Lahham.

During the entire pre-Ba'ath era, only one Shi'ite politician rose to fame in Syria, namely Said Haydar from Baalbak, who co-led the revolt against the French in the 1920s, and served several times as a deputy in the Syrian parliament, and who was a co-author of its constitution.

Syria's support for the Iranian revolution began in 1979, due to its animosity toward the US-backed and Israel-allied regime of Shah Reza Pahlevi. Actually, Damascus had even involved itself in the Shi'ite underground, by helping some of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's lieutenants prior to the revolution that deposed the Shah.

Men like Ibrahim Yazdi, Mustapha Chamran and Sadiq Qotbzadeh (two future ministers in the Islamic Republic) were all allies of Syria, and Qotbzadeh, for example, had been given a Syrian passport to conduct anti-Shah activities, disguised as a Paris correspondent for the Syrian daily al-Thawra.

Damascus was pleased when Iran's new leader, Khomeini, closed down the Israeli Embassy in Tehran, to show his distance from the Shah and his alliances, then reopened it as an embassy for the Palestinian Liberation Organization of Yasser Arafat. Syrian leader Hafez Assad had offered Khomeini asylum in Syria in October 1978. When Khomeini came to power, Syrian vice president Abd al-Halim Khaddam remarked that the Islamic revolution in Iran was the "most important event in our contemporary history" and boasted that Syria had supported it "prior to its outbreak, during it and after its triumph".

Syria also backed, but provided no arms or money to, Iran during its eight-year war with the Ba'athist regime of Saddam, starting in 1980. When the war ended, the two countries found more room for cooperation vis-a-vis combating Israel through Hezbollah in south Lebanon. Iran did it out of pan-Shi'ite loyalties. Syria did it to continue its war by proxy with Israel.

Some speculated that with Saddam gone in 2003, the common enemy of Damascus and Tehran, both countries would have little reason for future cooperation, especially since the new leaders of Baghdad were Shi'ite allies, and proteges, of Iran. The new Iran-friendly regime in Baghdad, many argued, would end all logical reasons for a Syrian-Iranian honeymoon.

Yet Iran continued its support for Syria, even after international pressure mounted on Damascus following the assassination of Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri on February 14. Iran feared, some believed, that Hezbollah's alliance with Syria in the aftermath of the Hariri crisis would damage the guerrilla movement's standing in Lebanon.

These fears were brushed aside by a statement by Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Naji al-Otari expressing solidarity with Iran, and by Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref, who said, "We are ready to help Syria confront all threats." Syria noted Iran's positive attitude and responded with positive gestures, reacting very warmly to the appointment of Iran's ally, Jaafari, as premier.

The Shi'ites of Bahrain

In Bahrain, which has a 70% Shi'ite majority (of a total population of about 443,000), ruled by a Sunni minority, the Shi'ites hoped that Shi'ite power in Tehran and Baghdad would bring more regional and international attention to their plight. To them, the ascent of Jaafari and the Shi'ites in Iraq is of no less importance than the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Treated as an underclass, they rose against the Bahraini government in 1994, with the funding of Iran, demanding reforms, better living conditions and restoration of the parliament abrogated by Sheikh Issa bin Salman al-Khalifa in 1975. Hopes were a little heightened in 2002 when Issa's son, King Hamad, restored constitutional life to Bahrain, but curbed its powers, and reduced Shi'ite representation.

They boycotted elections in 2002, and were very poorly represented in the lower chamber of parliament (the upper chamber was appointed by the king). Before the elections, in an attempt at bolstering Sunni representation in Bahrain, authorities decided to grant dual citizenship to nationals of the Gulf Cooperation Council living in Bahrain (mostly Sunnis). This aroused much controversy, and the Bahraini government decided to back down, fearing Shi'ite wrath, and grant citizenship to 10,000 Shi'ites living in Bahrain as an appeasement before the elections of October 2002.

On March 26 this year, shortly after it was confirmed that Jaafari was the new prime minister of Iraq, 80,000 Shi'ite demonstrators came out in Bahrain to demand a new constitution giving them more rights, among which was electing a prime minister, and not having him appointed by the king. In the past, demonstrators in Bahrain carried photographs of Iraq's Sistani and Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran.

The Shi'ites of Saudi Arabia

The same scare has taken over Saudi Arabia since 2003, where 11% of its 25 million people are Shi'ites. They, too, complain of being discriminated against, and have strong alliances in Baghdad and Tehran. Only a few days after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, Sheikh Hasan al-Saffa, a leading Saudi Shi'ite reformist, appeared on satellite television to demand an end to the injustice done against the Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia.

Shi'ite districts in Saudi Arabia were underdeveloped, and Saudi authorities prevented Shi'ites from practicing their rituals and building mosques, in addition to denying them equal access to government jobs and the Saudi army. By the end of April 2003, the Shi'ites had petitioned Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, for political and religious freedoms. Among other things, they demanded increased representation in government, the right to set up their own courts, publish their own books, the lifting of bans on their rituals, and the creation of a special department to oversee their issues at the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs.

Deeply rooted in the Arabian desert, the Shi'ites were around before the modern state of Saudi Arabia was created in the 1920s. In 1913, they swore allegiance to King Abd al-Aziz (the kingdom's founder, who was then sultan of Nejd), in exchange for a promise made by him to guarantee their safety and freedom of expression, once the desert was united. This was done despite promises by the British to grant them protectorate status, similar to the one according to the small Persian Gulf sheikhdoms.

Abd al-Aziz honored his initial promise, yet reneged on his promises when creating Saudi Arabia in 1925. Matters remained strained, more or less, throughout the 20th century, and in 1993 an agreement was reached between expatriate Saudi Shi'ites and King Fahd. They promised to halt opposition activities from abroad, urge Shi'ite activists to return to Saudi Arabia, in exchange for an amnesty by the king, and no more discrimination. This did not happen.

Today, fears are heightened that the Shi'ites of Saudi Arabia will be influenced, funded or helped by the victorious Shi'ites of Iraq. The Saudi Shi'ites, it must be noted, refused to cooperate with Iran when it called on them in 1980-88 to rebel against the House of Saud.

Shi'ites in the remainder of the Gulf are not as active, or as dangerous to established regimes, as they are in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Many have become active, however, since the rise of the Iraqi Shi'ites in 2003. In Yemen, the Shi'ites, who are 30% of the country's 20 million, have also been highly influenced by the Iraq debacle. They live in tribal regions of Yemen, are heavily armed and are greatly underdeveloped. In 2004, seeing the benefits their co-religionaries were getting in Iraq, they launched a failed rebellion against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and it was suppressed by authorities, leading to the killing of more than 400 people.

In Kuwait, where the Shi'ites are 25% of Kuwait's 2.2 million, they are loyal and in harmony with the established government, represented with five deputies in parliament, and until recently with Mohammad Abu al-Hassan, a Shi'ite, as minister of information. Matters became tense in 2004 when Yasser Habeeb, a Kuwaiti Shi'ite student activist, was arrested for distributing material offending leaders of the Sunni faith who were companions of the Prophet Mohammed. He was released in February 2004, but authorities tried to arrest him again, to no avail. The only two countries (in addition to Syria) with a significant Shi'ite majority, which nevertheless has no history of political ambitions, or activism, are Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

There is a fear rapidly creeping throughout the Arab world from the rising Shi'ite influence in the Middle East.

Shi'ite resurgence?

Two years after the fall of Saddam's regime in Iraq, it is safe to ask: Who were the real victors in this bloody war of the Middle East in 2003? At first glance, the only victors were George W Bush and the neo-conservatives at the White House. A closer look would show, however, that Iran as well, ironically, has a lot to gain from the new Middle East.

Or more specifically, the real victors are the Shi'ites of Iran and the Muslim world. They will enjoy the fruits of the post-Saddam order long after Bush's army leaves Iraq. This region, many fear, is now dominated by a "Shi'ite crescent" uniting the Shi'ites of Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and the Arab Gulf region.

Fear of this threat was first used by King Abdullah of Jordan in an interview with the Washington Post last December, arousing anger of the Shi'ite community in the Arab world. Actually, the fear of a "crescent" in this part of the world dates back to the 1950s, when Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Sa'id talked about a "fertile crescent" plan for the Middle East, to unite Iraq with Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, in a federal union to be ruled by the Hashemite family in Baghdad.

This plan, lobbied for extensively in Amman and Baghdad, was received with cold shivers in Damascus, Beirut, Cairo and Riyadh. The "crescent" remains, but players and roles have shifted over the past 50 years. Today's "crescent" is lobbied for extensively by its Iranian creator, and supported by Baghdad, parts of Beirut and Damascus, while it is being spurned in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and Kuwait.


Conversions Rise

Iran money converting Egypt to Shia Faith

Shiite Expansion in Egypt: A Red Line

by Dr. Hamad Al-Majid - 17/09/2008

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi, chairman of the International union of Muslim Scholars, recently made statements to the Al-Misri al-Yawm newspaper that included frank and daring warnings against the Shiite expansion in the Sunni states. Had the statements been made by someone else other than al-Qardawi, it would not have caused such an impact, not only because of his clerical status and fame in the Arab and Islamic worlds, but because al-Qardawi represents a tolerant school of thought which brought him a great deal of criticism, which at times reached the point of slander. Thus do the frank views of the "tolerant" al-Qardawi mean that the Sunni redlines have been invaded by the Shiite thought and that the Shiite knife has reached the bones?

Those who read the recent statements made by al-Qardawi will realize that what "provoked" Sheikh al-Qardawi to make these transparent statements was the fact that a number of Sunni Egyptians have converted to Shiites. Statistics in Egypt a few years ago show that the Egyptian Muslims were 100 per cent Sunnis. Shiite ideology could not penetrate Egypt even under the Shiite Fatimid rule. Recently, the intensive Shiite preaching efforts, sponsored by Iran and its religious leaders, have borne fruit and Egyptians amounting to thousands and perhaps dozens of thousands have converted into Shiites. The new converts are disguised in more than 76 Sufi groups. This was confirmed to the al-Arabiya News channel by a leader of the Egyptian Shiites, Muhammad al-Darini.

The problem here is that a number of Shiite references and teachings are contradictory. Shiites occasionally call for unity among Muslims, for the pooling of ranks against the common enemy, and for overlooking differences. They severely criticize some Sunni leanings and efforts to revive sectarianism, especially when they speak about the doctrinal distinction between the two sects that are two Muslim groups with no difference between them on the questions of principle. But on other occasions, the Shiites use their ideological and intellectual network in countries which are purely Sunnis. This effort is supported by huge financial budgets aimed at laying an ideological foothold paving the way for further influence in the future. Had it been true that those who are behind the Shiite preaching efforts in Egypt viewed the Egyptians as truly Muslim people, they would not have devoted their Shiite preaching efforts to this Muslim country and would have focused such efforts on the infidels, atheists and the followers of other religions in the various parts of the world.

I can recall that I met in London with a Tunisian intellectual who is viewed as one of the leaders of the Tunisian Islamic Movement. He was sympathetic with the Khomeini revolution to the point he thought of Khomeini as one of the reformers of this century. He told me that in the midst of the enthusiastic meetings between the representatives of the Iranian revolution and the leaders of his movement for the purpose of mobilizing efforts against the joint enemy, he noticed that there was hidden exploitation of these contacts, i.e. the Iranians began to sow the seeds of Schism in a purely Sunni country like Tunisia, and that he told the Iranians in a firm and decisive language: we have received this heritage from our clerics and predecessors and we can never relinquish it or bargain over it.

Shiite clerics, leaders and wise men should understand that marketing the Shiite doctrine in purely Sunni Islamic states is tantamount to a bid to promote problems and to sow the seeds of sedition. We already had enough problems in the countries where Shiites live along Sunnis, such as Iraq, Pakistan and Lebanon. Extremists of the two sects spark the fire of sectarian conflict. In fact, whenever the fire of sectarian conflict is started, it would only aggravate the situation and make it worse. The wise men of the Shiites should stop the Shiite preaching efforts in the Islamic states. The Shiites will be the first beneficiary of this because the Shiite competition of the Sunnis in areas where the Shiites do not exist, in the first place, creates a feeling of bitterness against them. Moreover, such an atmosphere paves the way for the creation of a fertile soil of animosity of a sect which in the final analysis constitutes only 10 percent of the Muslims. Moreover, It is a situation where the tolerant and moderate voices would be lost and no longer heeded, as exactly was the case with Sheikh al-Qardawi who was accused of being a sectarian because he frankly criticized the attempts to convert his country into Schism - a country known throughout history to be totally affiliated with the Sunni sect.


Iran invites Egypt Sunni university into Shiite heartland

(AFP) – Aug 7, 2008

CAIRO - Despite Egypt-Iran tensions, the Shiite-dominated Islamic republic has made an unprecedented request for Cairo's Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam's highest seat of learning, to open a branch in Tehran.

The overture has, however, sparked speculation in Egypt that Iran, increasingly embattled over its controversial nuclear programme, is merely seeking Arab support in its standoff with the West.

"We have asked officially, but so far we have had no response," said Karim Azizi, spokesman at the Iranian interests section in Cairo where there has been no Iranian embassy since diplomatic relations were cut almost 30 years ago.

Azizi told AFP the request to Al-Azhar -- founded in 975 AD -- was aimed at "reinforcing Iranian-Egyptian relations and bringing closer together the different Islamic confessions, especially Sunnis and Shiites."

The surprise move comes amid anger in Sunni-majority Egypt after Iranian television screened a film reportedly calling assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat a traitor and hailing his executed killer as a martyr.

After "Assassination of a Pharaoh" was shown, Egypt in July cancelled a football match, summoned Iran's envoy in Cairo and closed an Iranian satellite TV channel's office.

Officially Iran has sought to distance itself from the broadcast, saying it does not represent Tehran's position and instead hailing relations between the two Middle East heavyweights as "based on friendship and brotherhood."

In a region increasingly riven with Sunni-Shiite tensions and amid fears of a so-called Shiite crescent running from Beirut to Tehran, Egypt's soured relations with Iran have little to do with sectarianism, however.

Diplomatic ties were severed in 1980 a year after Iran's Islamic revolution in protest at Egypt recognising Israel, hosting the deposed shah and supporting Baghdad during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.

Relations warmed recently, with both states signalling a willingness to restore ties. In January, President Hosni Mubarak met Iran's parliament speaker Gholam Ali Hada Adel, the first such high-level talks in almost three decades.

Sheikh Ali Abdel Baqi, the head of Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Centre, said the Iranian request for a university or faculty was unofficial and came from Iran's five-million-strong Sunni minority, most of whom are members of ethnic minority groups living in the country's borderlands.

He said Iranian Sunnis want to "teach their children the Sunnism that's taught at Al-Azhar because it is moderate and open, and this is Al-Azhar's message all over the world."

In the wake of the Sadat film, the Egyptian press has increasingly reported what it calls a covert Shiite invasion.

"We won't allow the existence of a Shiite tide in Egyptian mosques," Minister of Waqf (religious endowments) Mahmud Hamdi Zaqzuq told the independent Al-Masri al-Youm last month.

Former Al-Azhar professor Adbel Moneim al-Berri said that Egyptian Shiite experts, including himself, have been asked to educate state security officers about "Shiite ideology and plans to break through the Sunni countries."

But Abdel Baqi insists: "We are not afraid of Shiites... There is no tension between Al-Azhar and other sects."

While Iran's Azizi suggested that an Al-Azhar presence in Iran could lead to an exchange of religious teachers, Abdel Baqi says Egypt would be unlikely to reciprocate.

"We don't need to open Shiite institutions in Egypt because all Egyptians are Sunnis," he said, adding that no Shiites study at Al-Azhar and there are "between 50,000 and 60,000 Shiites in Egypt, Iraqis who have come to seek a life in security."

However, Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights says that many Shiites in Egypt are converts from Sunni Islam whom the state tries to coerce into converting back, using arrest, interrogation and torture.

Security forces "have even summoned scholars from Al-Azhar to meet defendants to talk them out of their conversion," Bahgat charged.

"It is not in the interest of Muslims in Egypt that the Shiite sect spreads among them because I think it is somewhat harsh and differs from the virtues and manners that we believe in," said Abdel Baqi, who has never been to Iran and has no wish to go.

Mohammed Sayed Said, editor of the independent Al-Badil newspaper, described the Iranian initiative as "a very smart move. Iran keeps reaching out to Egypt and Mubarak's Egypt is not responsive and has not been for the past 10 years.

"It's political. It's not even diplomatic because I don't think it will be approved by the state," he said.

"The general feeling at the moment is that we (Muslims) are the target of destruction, so we should do whatever is necessary to restore unity."

Middle East commentator Reza Zia-Ebrahimi called the request "very odd."

"Not only do Iranian theologians boast about (the Iranian religious city of) Qom's greater open-mindedness, but Al-Azhar and Qom are attended by two very different breeds of Muslim theologian," he told AFP.

Abdel Baqi refuses to be drawn on whether the Iranian request is a genuine religious outreach or ultimately aimed at improving its image among Arab leaders, many of whom -- Mubarak included -- are staunch US allies.

"If there is a political background to this request we are not aware of it," Abdel Baqi said. "We do not read what is in the heart -- we listen to what the tongue says."


Egypt: Sunni but Shia inclined

Mustafa El Feki, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the People's Assembly

Al-Ahraam weekly 25-31 May 2006

Though Sunni, Egypt by history is founded on a Shia base, confounding agitators who want to drive a confessional wedge into the heart of Islam, writes Mustafa El-Feki

Much of the anger and criticism sparked by President Hosni Mubarak's recent statements on Arab Shia was the result of them being taken out of context and misinterpreted. In the interests of restoring calm and objectivity, I believe it would be useful to set those statements and their regretful effects to the side for a moment and take a look at how Egypt really stands towards Shia Islam and its adherents.

Egypt is a Sunni country but with strong Shia leanings. It is the country that gave refuge to the descendants of the Prophet Mohamed in the first century AH and continues to venerate them today. Its venerable Al-Azhar University is one of the few Sunni academic institutions to teach Shia Jaafari jurisprudence alongside the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence. This is of no small import given the historical and symbolic significance of Al-Azhar. In addition, Egypt was the first officially Shia state which, founded in the mid-10th century AH, did more than its predecessors to shape the traditions and values of Egyptian society.

Many are unaware that the conversion of Egyptian society to Islam did not take place overnight. Indeed, Egypt remained predominantly Christian (Coptic) for a full two centuries after the Islamic conquest and it was only with the arrival of the Shia Fatimids and the founding of their new capital in Cairo -- Al-Qahira, "The Victorious" -- that the ratio shifted in the other direction. So intent were some Fatimid rulers upon collecting taxes and the heavier jizya, or head tax, from non-Muslims that huge sectors of the non- Muslim populace converted to Islam as a means of reducing the financial burden.

Nor should we forget that the Fatimids established Al-Azhar as a bastion of Shia jurisprudence and a theological centre in general. Fatimid rulers were open, however, to other religious influences and drew heavily on the expertise of non-Muslims, both Christian and Jewish. This was the state, after all, in which the Jewish Maimonides rose to power as vizier. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that this was the epoch to which we can date the homogenisation of Egyptian society and therefore, also, many characteristics of Egyptian religious rites: fervent veneration for the descendants of Ali Ibn Abu Taleb expelled by the Ummayid rulers, worship at a plethora of sacred tombs and pilgrimage destinations, moulid celebrations commemorating the anniversaries of Muslim holy men and women, and any number of daily religious rituals. This was also the era in which Egypt became fully culturalised as an Arabic speaking society, for it was around this time that the churches adopted Arabic alongside Coptic as a liturgical language.

Concrete testimony to the enduring influence of Shia Islam on Egyptian society is to be found in the "saints'" tombs dating from the Fatimid era. The widely venerated Sidi Abul-Hassan Al-Shazli, Al-Sayed Badawi, Al-Mursi Abul-Abbas and Ibrahim Al-Dessouqi all hailed from Fatimid North Africa. In fact, on the outskirts of Damanhour -- the city I have the honour of representing in parliament -- you will find the tomb of Abu Hasira. We had originally thought that this was the tomb of a Muslim holy man. It turns out, however, that it is of a Jewish holy man and, hence, a source of some intermittent difficulties in Egyptian-Israeli relations because of the desire of some Israelis to make a pilgrimage to this tomb. I believe Abu Hasira was one of the North African Jews who came to Egypt when the Fatimid state opened its doors to immigrants of all religious persuasions, in keeping with this country's long tradition of religious and cultural tolerance and openness.

Egyptian Muslims, whether rightly or wrongly, must vie with the Shia in their adoration of the descendants of the prophet. We, thus, find further tangible evidence of our Shia leanings in the millions of pounds that worshippers leave yearly as offerings in the donation boxes at the tombs of Hussein, Sayeda Zeinab and Sayeda Aisha. The Ayyubids may have overthrown the Fatimid caliphate and Sunni rites of worship and codes of jurisprudence may have supplanted Shia rites and jurisprudence in mosques and in courts, but popular faith has clung to some Shia ways.

Even official Sunni Islam in Egypt could not turn its back on Shia Islam forever. In the early 1960s, the Imam Mahmoud Shaltout went down in Islamic history for his fatwa declaring that Sunnis and Shias were equal in the eyes of Islam. The famous Al-Azhar grand sheikh declared that the sectarian differences between Sunni and Shia Islam were secondary and that both were fully in keeping with the essence of the creed and Islamic law. Immediately afterwards, Al-Azhar scored the precedent for an Islamic centre of learning by entering Jaafari jurisprudence into its curriculum on equal footing with the other schools of Islamic jurisprudence. We should also note that for many years Cairo was the location for a Muslim ecumenical bureau. Its activities were overseen by a Shia sheikh, the Imam Al-Qumi, who was assisted by a number of Sunni imams, among whom was Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Eissa, who became minister of Al-Azhar affairs in the 1970s.

Egypt, thus, has always taken the lead in offering its Sunni hand in friendship and respect to its Shia brothers. What better event can serve to illustrate this than the marriage, in the early 1940s, of Princess Fawzya, daughter of King Fouad and sister of King Farouk, to the young Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, the emperor of Shia Iran. The marriage, joyfully celebrated by the peoples of both countries, symbolised not only the joining of the two thrones but the unity of Islam. I should add, here, that the Iranian people continue to harbour great affection and respect for the Egyptian people, sentiments that I experienced personally during my visit to Tehran several years ago. I also cannot forget the famous remark by former Iranian president Rafsanjani who told Egypt's celebrated journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal that he was looking forward to the day when he could visit "the noble Al-Azhar" and pay tribute to that great Islamic institution which had emerged from the fold of the Fatimid Shia state.
This brief survey of Egypt's position with respect to Shia Islam represents an effort to offset attempts to fan the flames of discord between Sunni and Shia Islam. Such incendiary agitation is alien to our faith and lending ourselves to it benefits no one but the West. Indeed, it has been suggested that the US is currently working to place the Shia in power in Iraq in order to counteract the effects of Britain's championing of the Iraqi Sunnis when, during the monarchical period, the British Foreign Office installed the descendants of the Sherif Hussein on the throne in Baghdad. In all events, we, in Egypt, see the situation in Iraq much differently. Iraq is an indivisible whole. There is no difference between Shia and Sunni, Kurd and Arab, Muslim and Christian. Iraq is for the Iraqi people regardless of their diverse ethnic or religious affiliations and this national affiliation should remain the only criterion for citizenship and citizenship rights.

In fact, we in Egypt do not give much thought to the differences between Shia and Sunni Islam, if only because the differences are not visibly there to remark upon. At the same time, the Egyptians have much to offer by way of testimony to their esteem and fondness for Shia Iran, not least of which are the famous royal union mentioned above and the fact that Egypt offered itself as the last refuge for the shah of Iran, who, in spite of his sins, was a former ruler of a major Islamic nation and who now lies in peace in the capital city founded by Muezeddin Al-Fatimi, the Shia ruler and founder of Al-Azhar.
All told, the excessive criticism being levelled at Egypt by our fellow Arabs who belong to the Shia sect comes as something of a surprise to me. After all, Egypt, with its many Fatimid minarets, domes and tombs, with its moulids, Ramadan rites and Shia holy men, and with its particular social character, is far from hostile to Shia Islam. This highly homogenous Sunni nation has a solidly Shia quality in its core.