The Sectarian Divide.
In this context, it is important to note the roots of the Sunni-Shiite divide. After the Prophet Mohammad's death, Muslims split into followers of Caliph Abu Bakr and those who supported Mohammad's closest relative, his son-in-law Ali Ibn Abi Talib. The division was formalised following the deaths in 661 AD of Imam Ali and his son, Imam Hussein 19 years later - both at the hands of Sunnis, in what is still regarded as a treachery by Shiite community. Although both sects share most of the customs of Islam, divisions persist over Shiites' emphasis on the guiding role of clerics. While Shiites believe that God chose Ali to be the caliph and that the position should be inherited, Sunnis are against hereditary succession.
Sunnis revere Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, just as Iraq's Najaf and Karbala are the symbols of martyrdom for Shiites, who number about 135 million - 10% of the world's Muslim population - and are concentrated mostly in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Pakistan. Despite their numbers, only Iran has a Shiite-dominated government in the world and the city of Qom in Iran assumed more religious importance than the Iraqi shrines.
On a geo-political level, this divide was exacerbated by the US decision to invade and occupy Iraq, after ousting the regime of Saddam Hussein in May this year. Saddam belongs to the Sunni community, which had ruled over Iraq despite the fact that the majority in the country (about 69%) was Shiite. After the US ousted Saddam, the Iraqi Shiites began to assert what they regarded as their rightful role in the country as the predominant community.
The US has so far expressed no reservations about the Shiites having a major, if not the most important, role in governing Iraq. It has also demonstrated its willingness to work with Shiite theologians, provided they were prepared to deal with the US and supported the democratisation of the country. For instance, Washington had been working relatively closely with Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir Al Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), based in Tehran, who was assassinated in August this year.
However, such new realities in Iraq are especially worrying the regimes on the Arab side of the Gulf, where Sunni rulers are concerned that Shiites in their countries, in some cases the majority community, may see what happened to their counterparts in Iraq as a source of inspiration. These regimes are also concerned because an Iraqi Shiite government would change the balance of power between the sects in this oil-rich region.
For instance Bahrain, which like Iraq has a Shiite majority ruled by Sunnis, has overcome more than two decades of sectarian strife by conducting parliamentary elections just last year. After riots erupted in December 1994, it became clear that the Shiites in that country were restive in view of their poor socio-economic conditions, among other things. The regime responded with a tough crackdown, but in recent years has relented and taken a much softer approach towards the Shiites. Now, however, Manama will have to deal with the prospect of a resurgence among Bahraini Shiites, who have close links with their counterparts in Iran.
There are similar concerns in Saudi Arabia. The re-emergence of Iraqi Shiite movements is already being viewed as a source of hope for the Saudi Shiite minority in the oil-rich eastern sector. A Saudi Shiite theologian, Shaikh Hasan Al Saffar, said in a statement earlier this year that the kingdom's Shiites were determined to combat the discrimination faced by the community, such as "a ban on practising their religious rituals and cultural activities" as well as absence of representation in key political posts, and a ban on Shiites "serving their country in the military, security and diplomatic fields".
Given this mood, some experts say, regimes on the Arab side of the Gulf are trying to limit US influence and Shiite empowerment in Iraq through a variety of methods, including the provision of assistance to the terrorists in Iraq and operating against the regime. The emergence of a Shiite-dominated Iraq, controlling the second largest reserves of oil in the world, next to hydrocarbon-rich Iran - which has the second largest reserves of natural gas in the world - will certainly undermine the strategic weight of key regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc.
Some observers believe the assassination of Ayatullah Al Hakim was timely and a crucial check on the potential for a stable and Shiite-dominated Iraq to emerge in the region. Though far from being pro-American, Al Hakim was engaged in limited cooperation with the US, including - through SCIRI - participating in the American-sponsored Iraq Governing Council. Upon his death, Iran announced a three-day mourning period in his honour.
Al Hakim, who had lived in exile in Iran during much of Saddam Hussein's rule in Baghdad, was an integral part of the Shiite governing apparatus and he was much admired and loved in Iran. He was intimately connected to Iranian ruling circles, and not just to those circles regarded by the US as being those of "reformers". Yet Al Hakim had embarked on a meaningful collaboration with the US, which appears to be why he was killed. His death ended or at least delayed any prospect of a high-profile Shiite leader working closely with the US to bring stability at least to those parts of the country dominated by Shiites.
The Shiites are being equally dynamic in their approach to developments in Iraq. As news began to emerge that Wahhabi Sunnis were active in Iraq, both trying to get coverts to their sect and fighting against the US, there were parallel hints that Shiite fighters were also penetrating into Iraq. The objective was not necessarily to become a martyr, but rather to ensure that Wahhabi proselytisation efforts did not impact upon the Shiite community and that they were prepared in case of a sectarian confrontation.
In April 2003, Saudi-owned 'Al Hayat' newspaper published a report saying that a "military source" had told the daily that US forces had arrested six members of Lebanon's Hizbullah, a Shiite organisation, "who were planning to conduct operations against coalition forces". They were reportedly caught along the Syrian-Iraqi border. But a Hizbullah statement subsequently denied "any knowledge of the existence of a Hizbullah group" at the Syrian-Iraqi border.