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Biblical tradition holds that northern Iraq is the land of Cain and Abel. Across post-war Iraq, the ancient parable of fratricide seems to be playing out in a contemporary context: Muslim brothers killing Muslim brothers in spates of violence between the Sunni and Shia sects rippling out in waves across the Middle East.

US finds Sunni-Shia rift difficult to navigate

From Iraq to Syria, what might look like domestic conflicts are often proxy battles in a much larger war.

WASHINGTON — A decade after the United States’ invasion of Iraq ignited a season of deadly bloodletting between Sunni and Shia Muslims, this ancient divide in Islam is deepening throughout the Middle East, aggravating political and ethnic tensions, inflaming emotions and complicating US policymaking in this strategic, turbulent region.

Syria’s tableau of sanguinary carnage, which has flooded neighboring states with nearly 1 million refugees, is the latest example of how this sectarian conflict can spiral out of control. It also depicts how the long-standing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran — at once religious and geo-strategic — is fueling sectarian tensions as both nations exert influence through proxies around the region.

A fount of Islamic civilization, Syria today is ground zero in that rivalry. Iran is giving critical support to the government, dominated by adherents to an offshoot of Shia Islam, while Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations are deeply involved in backing the mostly Sunni rebel fighters.

“Sunnis and Shiites are fighting over control of the Middle East and... Syria is in the middle of that struggle,” said Syria expert Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies, during a recent public debate in Washington.

Their enmity has sharpened in recent years because of Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states fear that this would give Iran a huge advantage in its ambition to become the region’s dominant Islamic power.

“We’re not there yet in terms of our understanding.”
~Vali Nasr

Saudi-Iranian antagonism also was augmented by the unintended consequences of US policies in Iraq. Failing to appreciate the depth of sectarian feelings, the US-led push for democratic elections facilitated the rise to power of a Shia government and the spread of Iranian influence in this key Arab country.

Pro-invasion policy-makers in Washington “puffed themselves up into believing that religion didn’t matter anymore in the Middle East,” Landis said in an interview. “They really enabled the ‘Shia crescent’ to take shape…[by giving] power to the Shia in [an] Arab country in the Ottoman lands. This was a terrible insult to many Sunnis who had always believed and always identified Arab nationalism with Sunni Islam.”

Iraq illustrates what happens “when we operate in the Middle East based on our own conceptions of what are the issues and who are the players,” said Vali Nasr, an expert on Shia Islam and Dean of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “Our conceptions become at odds with reality and that proves to be catastrophic. [In Iraq] we thought it’s all going to be about democracy and dictatorship and our entire strategy was upended by another axis of conflict that we were completely taken unawares by.”

Sunni-Shia tensions that go back 1,400 years are more volatile nowadays in part because they coincide with widespread anti-American feelings, and a rise in religious conservatism. In addition, the two sides have access to more lethal weapons than in the past. They also have adopted more sinister methods for indiscriminately murdering civilians, including remotely controlled car bombs and suicide missions.

This lethality is evident in the Shia-Sunni violence in recent months that has scarred the land stretching from Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast to the mountains of inland Pakistan, where Sunni extremist attacks on Shia communities have become endemic. Last month, 84 civilians were killed in the bombing of a vegetable market in Quetta. In Baghdad on February 28, a series of bombings in Shia neighborhoods killed 22. In December, clashes between Sunnis and Alawites, a Shia-related sect dominating the Syrian government, in Lebanon’s seaside city of Tripoli left 17 dead.

Sectarian conflict “is going to get worse regardless of how Syria goes in the next several years,” said a US State Department official in a recent interview. “It is rapidly becoming the axis around which much of Middle Eastern politics is organizing… What’s interesting is that the dynamic is becoming important even in some countries where there aren’t any Shia.”

For example, Egypt’s minuscule Shia population is hardly a threat. But during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent visit there he was treated to a public tongue-lashing from clerics at Al Azhar, the renowned center of Sunni learning, for allegedly trying to spread Shia Islam in Egypt.