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Iraq Hangings Fuel Sunni-Shiite Sectarianism in the Middle East

By Michael Slackman


The botched hanging of Saddam Hussein and two lieutenants in Iraq by its Shiite-led government has helped to accelerate Sunni-Shiite sectarianism across an already fragile Middle East, according to experts across the region.

The chaotic executions and the calm with which Saddam confronted the gallows and mocking Shiite guards have bolstered his image among many of his fellow Sunni Muslims. But something else is happening too: A pan-Muslim unity that surged after the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, is waning.

And while political analysts and government officials in the region say the spreading Sunni disillusionment with Shiites and their backers in Iran will benefit Sunni-led governments and the United States, they and others worry that the tensions could start to balkanize the region as they have in Iraq itself.

“The reality of the current situation is that we are approaching an open Sunni-Shiite conflict in the region,” said Emad Gad, a specialist in international relations at the government-financed Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “And Egypt will also be a part of it as a part of the Sunni axis. No one will be able to avoid or escape it.”

This changing dynamic in the region, described by many scholars, analysts and officials in recent days, is a result not only of the hangings, Iraq war and Lebanese political struggle. It has also been encouraged by Sunni-led governments like those in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and some Sunni religious leaders, who have viewed with alarm the rising influence of Iran, the region’s biggest Shiite power. Some of the region’s Sunni-led governments and religious leaders used the hanging of Saddam on a Sunni Muslim holy day as a weapon in the jockeying for regional power.

“Sunni states are using this sectarian card to undercut Iran’s influence because they feel that Iran was able to penetrate the Arab world after the fall of Iraq, which was acting as a shield against Iranian influence,” said Marwan Kabalan, a political science professor at Damascus University.

Sunnis make up a vast majority of the Islamic world. Shiites, who lead Iran and now the Iraqi government, are the next largest sect. While there are theological differences between the groups — and similarities — the gathering conflict is not fueled by religion.