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Shiites Rising


A new balance of power that favors Shiites over Sunnis has been taking shape in the Middle East during the past few years.

There is little disagreement among Middle East experts that the U.S. military operation in Iraq and the ensuing democratic process that put Shiites in charge of the country has shifted the regional balance of power that traditionally favored Sunnis.

Tom Lippman, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, says the shift was an unintended consequence of regime change in Iraq. "The American adventure in Iraq has strengthened the hand of Iran in many ways and that, of course, helps to strengthen the position throughout the [Persian] Gulf of the Shiite Muslims. In addition, the way the political cards have been dealt out in Iraq has led the Shiites finally to a position of political ascendancy in Iraq. So it seems pretty obvious that, collectively, Shiite Muslims have more strategic power now around the region than they did three years ago,” says Lippman.

A New Political Balance

That view is shared by some Sunni Arab leaders in the Middle East who are increasingly uneasy about the changing political landscape in the region. Less than two years ago, King Abdullah of Jordan accused Iran of trying to form a Shiite-dominated region. And recently, Egyptian President Husni Mubarak drew a barrage of criticism for saying that most Shiites are loyal to Iran rather than to the countries they live in.

Cody Shearer of the non-profit Institute for International Mediation and Conflict Resolution in Washington recalls Mr. Mubarak's remarks and says it is a reflection of the underlying frustration shared by many leaders in the region. "Denunciations poured in from all of the Shi'a's leaders, stressing the Shi'a's historic nationalism. And then President Mubarak, of course, tried to step back from his statement. But his comments really did kind of mirror those of Jordan's King Abdullah, a fellow Sunni leader, when he warned of an enraged 'Shi'a Crescent.' So I think what we're looking at today is that Arab leaders are increasingly frustrated by the changing political order in the region, where the Shi'a are now in power for the first time in Iraq and Shiite militias are now engaged in sectarian conflict with Sunni militias,” says Shearer.

Iraqi Shiite Ties with Iran

Despite the Jordanian monarch's assertions that his comments were taken out of context, some analysts still worry that the leaders of Iraq's 16 million Shiites, representing about 60 percent of the country's population, could seek closer ties with Iran.

The University of Michigan's Juan Cole, an expert on Iraq, says this could embolden Shiites in countries throughout the region if that happened. "The Shiite religious parties in Iraq will be a bulwark for the Lebanese Shiites, for the Shiites of Bahrain, who are a majority but have a Sunni king over them, for the minority Shiites of Saudi Arabia - - some 10 percent of the population - - many of whom live in the oil-producing regions of Saudi Arabia. Maybe 30 percent of Kuwaitis are Shiites. And since two-thirds of the world's proven petroleum reserves are in the [Persian] Gulf [region], this gives them [i.e., the Shiites] an extremely important geo-political position for the future," says Cole.

Some observers fear such a scenario could potentially threaten world oil supplies. Others dismiss the notion that Shiites in the oil-rich Persian Gulf could pose a threat, except perhaps to the Sunni regimes that have not given them a sufficient political stake in their societies. But many analysts say Sunni fears of a Shiite-dominated Middle East - - especially one that is aligned with Iran - - are exaggerated.

James Phillips, a Heritage Foundation research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs, says the democratic process in Iraq may have empowered Iraqi Shiites, but it has not altered their loyalties. "It's important to remember that Iraqi Shiites were loyal to the Baghdad government in a bloody eight-year war with Iran because their ethnic ties and their loyalties to Iraq far outweigh their religious commonality with Iran. So I think those fears are overstated," says Phillips.

For example, a recent public opinion survey of Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon revealed that more than 70 percent of the country's Shiites professed loyalty to Lebanon, not to Shiites at large or to Iran.

Shiite Political Clout

Shiites account for only 10 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, compared to a 90 percent Sunni majority - - hardly enough for Shiite domination, according to The Heritage Foundation's James Phillips. “That's unlikely in many countries because the Shi'a - - aside from Bahrain, which I think has a Shiite majority - - are a minority every place else. And in Lebanon, they're the single biggest community, but still they're only about 40 or 45 percent of the population. So it's unlikely that the Shi'a are going to come to power elsewhere," says Phillips.

Nonetheless, some analysts argue that the impact of Shiite political empowerment in Iraq has already seeped into countries like Saudi Arabia, where the marginalized Shiite minority is seeking greater equality and political representation.

Shiites are now becoming more politically active, according to Fawaz Gerges, Professor of Middle East studies at New York's Sarah Lawrence College. "The Shiites are saying it's about time that we demand equal treatment, a political voice in the political process, full participation in the social and political estate. You hear Shiite voices everywhere - - in Saudi Arabia, in Kuwait, in Qatar, in Bahrain, in Lebanon, everywhere. There is an intense political awakening among the Shiites throughout the region," says Gerges.

In the long-run, some observers say tipping the balance of power in the Middle East in favor of Shiites, many of whom disagree with Tehran on religious matters, may ultimately temper Iran's Shiite influence throughout the Middle East.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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