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Lebanon: Al-Qaeda Promotion Of Religious Divisions Angers Shi'a

Leading Lebanese Shi'a reject al-Zarqawi's attempts to sow discord (AFP) Western military personnel, contractors, aid workers, and journalists, as well as Iraqi security forces, were the traditional targets of Iraqi insurgents and Al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. In mid-September, al-Zarqawi expanded the fight to the country's Shi'ite Muslim community, which makes up roughly 65 percent of the population. Al-Zarqawi's actions have had repercussions in another country with a sizable Shi'ite community, Lebanon. In exclusive interviews with RFE/RL, two leading Shi'ite clerics, Sheikh Afif Nabulsi and Sheikh Seyyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, condemned al-Zarqawi and the terrorist attacks in Iraq.

A Call To Arms

On 14 September, the website posted an audio link to a statement from al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda Organization in the Land of the Two Rivers (Tanzim al-Qa'ida fi Bilad al-Rafidayn). The statement employed inflammatory historical references and used derogatory terminology. Battles come and go and time passes, but the goal -- "A Crusader, rejectionist [derogatory term for Shi'a] war against the Sunnis" -- does not change. The statement continued, "The interests of the Crusaders coincided with the whims of their hateful rejectionist brothers, leading to these crimes and these massacres against the Sunnis."

The statement claimed that in the battle for the Iraqi city of Tal Afar, coalition forces protected Shi'ite neighborhoods so they could "launch a war of total extermination against the Sunni neighborhoods in an attempt to obliterate all forms of life in these neighborhoods." Then, the statement continued, poison gas was used against the city's Sunnis. The Badr Corps militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) was accused of torturing and killing Sunni men who escaped the shelling, and violating the honor and stealing the jewelry and ornaments of the Sunni women. "It is an organized sectarian war whose chapters were prepared with precision despite the existence of those whose sight God blinded and set a seal on their hearts."

"This is a special call to the Sunni tribes in Iraq in general.... rise up from your sleep, wake from your slumber.... The wheels of the war to annihilate the Sunni tribes have not and will not stop; they are coming your way, to your very doorsteps unless God permits otherwise. Unless you take the initiative and join the mujahedin to defend your religion and protect your honor, you will most certainly regret with sorrow...."

Al-Zarqawi's statement identified Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Mas'ud Barzani as "the Jews' servants" and accused them of seeking the benefits of a "polytheistic constitution." The Iraqi government was equated with that of Ibn-al-Alqami, a Shi'ite minister who allegedly betrayed the caliph in 1258 when Hulugu attacked Baghdad, and the Shi'ite prime minister, Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, was accused of declaring an "an all-out war against the Sunnis...under the pretexts of restoring the law and eliminating the terrorists." Al-Qaeda in Iraq, therefore, "has decided to declare an all-out war against the rejectionist Shi'a everywhere in Iraq, wherever they may be as a fitting recompense for them."

Five days after this statement was posted, another one from the same group appeared on a jihadist website ( This one said that Shi'a associated with Muqtada al-Sadr, and any others who condemned the attacks against Sunnis in Tal Afar, are exempt from the earlier threat of retaliation. The war against Iraq's two main Shi'ite political parties -- Al Da'wah al-Islamiyah and SCIRI -- and the other mainstream political organizations will continue.

Threats In Sidon

The impact of Al-Qaeda's anti-Shi'a action is being felt in Lebanon today. Sheikh Afif Nabulsi, president of the Association of Jabal Amel Ulama, received a threatening message from the Al-Mujahedin in the Sham Countries on 5 December. Leaflets delivered to the Sayyida Fatima Al-Zahra mosque complex in Sidon criticized Nabulsi for "declaring hostility to the mujahedin" and referred to him as an "atheist."

Sheikh Afif Nabulsi

Nabulsi has a record as a proponent of Shi'a-Sunni accord, and these are not the first threats against Shi'ite clerics in southern Lebanon. Nabulsi said in an interview with RFE/RL in Sidon on 8 December that he is unafraid. Furthermore, the local representative of the Palestinian "resistance" reassured Nabulsi in a telephone call that his organization does not back such a hostile initiative.

Nabulsi also rejected al-Zarqawi's declaration of war. "If he called for a war against the Shi'a, the Shi'a do not call for a war against the Sunnis. They call for peace with the Sunnis. We will not accept anything that will cause war. It is not the first time this man talks about such things," he said.

Nabulsi said that such calls for war against the Shi'a have historical precedents, and there probably will be similar occurrences in the future. The Shi'a, however, will stay "strong and reasonable" and will not respond in kind. Nabulsi advocated open-mindedness and discussion in order to achieve agreement. Efforts to create divisions between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims are artificial, Nabulsi said, and the Shi'a will not respond to violence.

Asked about Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Nabulsi said, "only fools follow him."

Later in the interview, however, Nabulsi made it clear that the Shi'a will not turn the other cheek. He said that the hostage takers in Iraq who behead their captives are living in the dark ages and are "warriors against God and the Prophet [Muhammad]." We should reply to such acts in kind, Nabulsi continued. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a head for a head."

Condemnation in Beirut

One would find it much harder to threaten a cleric in Haret Hraik, the mostly Shi'ite suburb of southern Beirut. There are surveillance cameras on most of the streets. Moreover, troublemakers might be discouraged by the omnipresent posters of Shi'ite religious men. These include Lebanese clerics -- such as Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and his predecessor, Abbas Musawi -- as well as Iranian ones -- Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Seyyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah

Seyyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, considered by many to be Lebanon's leading Shi'ite cleric, denies having a formal political role. Politics and religion are never far apart in the Shi'ite faith, however, and furthermore, the faithful frequently seek Fadlallah's views on a wide range of issues.

As a Shi'ite leader, Fadlallah is very critical of al-Zarqawi's actions. He said, "We are against what those people believe in, because killing people because they are of different opinion is not Islamic in any way."

Fadlallah seemed particularly incensed by al-Zarqawi's promotion of Shi'a-Sunni divisions. "They feel that shedding the blood of Shi'ites around the world is lawful and the Shi'ites are not Muslims and they are unbelievers and the unbelievers should be killed. But not all Iraqi Sunnis agree with al-Zarqawi. That's why it is difficult to envisage a sectarian war in Iraq," he said.

Going Nowhere

It seems unlikely that the promotion of Sunni hostility to Shi'ite co-religionists will get much traction in Lebanon. In this country of some 3.8 million people, the Shi'a are a sizable group and play a significant political role. Moreover, two Shi'ite organizations -- Hizballah and Amal -- are viewed by many Lebanese as the "Islamic resistance" and credited by them with ending the Israeli occupation of the country's south.

RFE/RL Iraq Report

RFE/RL Iraq Report

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