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Iraq: U.S. Occupation May Shift Sunni-Shi'a Balance Of Power In Middle East

The U.S. occupation of Iraq did more than remove Saddam Hussein from power. It has also, for the first time, given the Shi'a Muslim majority the opportunity to rule the country. Iraq may become the first major Shi'a-led Arab country in the predominantly Sunni-governed Middle East -- a change whose potential consequences are still unclear.

Prague, 5 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When Iraq's new cabinet was sworn in this week, 13 ministries went to Shi'a Muslims. This is a dramatic shift from the times when minority Sunni Muslims ruled the country almost exclusively. Now, Sunnis control just five ministries. The remaining two ministries went to a Turkoman and a Christian.

Shi'a comprise just 15 percent of the world's Muslims, but in Iraq, they make up some 60 percent of the population. Even so, they have been political underdogs since the country's official founding in 1921. Deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a Sunni Muslim, as were the vast majority of his Ba'ath Party's elite.

David Gardner is an international affairs writer for the British "Financial Times" daily. He believes the shift in Iraq from Sunni to Shi'a dominance may be a sign of broader changes throughout the Middle East -- where large Shi'a communities remain in Lebanon, Yemen, and Bahrain, where the last Shi'a ruling regime ceased to exist in 1171. Gardner tells RFE/RL the Arab region's Sunni governments are not likely to welcome the first Shi'a-dominant state in nearly a millennium.

"This is everything that all Arab governments have labored to prevent in the last 50 years. And they have been helped in that by the Americans, by all European countries, who have accepted that would not be a good thing. That's what I am saying -- this is a huge change," Gardner says.

Shi'as and Sunnis have been at odds since 632, when a debate over the legitimate successor to the Prophet Muhammad created a schism between the two groups. Now, Gardner says, putting Shi'a Muslims in power in Iraq will spur what he referred to in a recent article as a "tectonic change" throughout the region.

Explaining his choice of words, he says, "In the same way that we don't know exactly where energy is released when two tectonic plates rub against each other -- creating an earthquake, or volcanic explosion or whatever -- it's impossible to know [what will happen in the region as a result of the shift in Iraq]. But I am sure that the people carrying out this change have even less idea about what the possible consequences are."

Gardner says it is not certain the outcome will be bad, adding that the Arab world is in need of a shakeup. But he worries that the impact of the Iraqi situation is dangerously unpredictable, and compares the significance of current events to the creation of Israel in 1948.

Neil Partrick is a Middle East and Africa analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. He says it is too early to draw any dramatic conclusions about the future of Iraq and the impact of a Shi'a-dominant government on the rest of the region.

"On the factual side, there's not a Shi'a government being imposed. There's an attempt to bring about a representative government, a consequence of which seems to be that Shi'a Arabs obviously [will] have a significant role in the future direction of the country. But you can't read from that that it's necessarily a government that's wholly directed by Shi'a Arab interests," Partrick says.

Partrick says fears of a regionwide shakeup are premature. Still, he agrees that an Iraqi government dominated by Shi'a Muslims -- who are traditionally considered more politically active and independent-minded than Sunnis -- is likely to cause concern among Iraq's Arab neighbors.

"Certainly, the Arab League has represented the dominant Sunni-led Arab states and there would be concerns from Saudi Arabia and from Egypt, who have been traditional dominant players in the Arab world, about the idea of Iraq being Shi'a-led. Certainly that's a concern which Britain has had for different reasons over many years, and it had some impact on the way that they shaped the emergence of Iraq after 1921," Partrick says.

The U.S. has also traditionally backed an Iraq ruled by the Sunni minority. In the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, the Americans backed Baghdad, fearing a spread of Iran's Shi'a Islamic Revolution. Washington, fearing the rise of a pro-Iranian regime in Iraq, also refrained from supporting the local Shi'a uprising against Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War. Gardner says Cairo and Riyadh played a key role at the time in convincing the U.S. not to march on Baghdad to oust Hussein -- paving the way for the Iraqi leader's vicious retributory crackdown on Shi'a Muslims in southern Iraq.

Partrick of the Economist Intelligence Unit says that a long-term consequence of the political change under way may be that Iraq will become a major U.S. ally in the region -- something that in turn will affect the entire Arab world as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran -- the world's major Shi'a country.