The rise of the Shiites

One of the very predictable outcomes of America's taking out of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein was an opportunity for Iran and the region's Shiites to exert themselves. Understanding this dynamic is critical to understanding what is happening in the Middle East today. Some thoughts:

- Iran is the global center for Shiite Muslims. Shiites are a minority of the world's Muslims, an estimated 10 percent. There are old, deep and difficult tensions with the majority Sunnis, many of whom do not view the Shia faith as a legitimate form of Islam. Sunni Muslims run the Arab world, and while many Arab nations have a minority Shia population, Sunni Islam is the politically and culturally dominant form of Islam in the Arab Middle East.

- One of the holiest cities in the Shia faith, Najaf, is in the Shia dominated part of southern Iraq. Many Shia religious leaders have studied and trained in Najaf, including the leader of the Iranian revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeni. There are very strong cultural and religious ties between the Shiite South of Iraq and Iran, even though Iranians are Persians, not Arabs. The overwhelming majority of Iraqis are Shiite Arabs, with small minorities of largely Sunni Kurds and Sunni Arabs. Saddam Hussein's government was run by Sunni Arabs, oppressed the Shiite majority and significantly curtailed the public expression of the Shiite faith.

One of the first acts of the revolutionary Iranian government was to end up in a war with Iraq, a war that lasted 8 years and cost more than a one million lives. America sided with the Iraqis in the war to help curtail the expansion of the Iranian, Shiite-led revolution, a revolution that Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, was very well aware could radicalize his majority Shiite population. Shiites well remember whose side America was on in this terrible battle.

- The Taliban, and Al Qaeda, are Sunni extemists, and do not see the Shia faith as a legitimate form of Islam.

- Thus, when our government cleared out the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam in Iraq, and created a process that guarenteed the election of the first Shiite-led government in the history of the Arab world, we dramatically reorganized the region's balance between Sunni and Shiite in favor of the Iranians and the Shiites. A clear outcome of our early post 9/11 strategy would be the rise of Iran, growing power for the regions Shiites and a remaking of the Middle East in a way that would not sit well with the region's Sunnis, and that would embolden deeply anti-American and anti-Western elements.

- The regional Shiite, Iranian momentum is growing. Iran has aggressively pursued nuclear weapons despite extraordinary global condemnation. The Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah are in the process of taking down the fragile Lebanese government. Iran has become one of the most significant financial backers of the new Hamas-led Palestinian government. The Shiites who run the Iraqi government refuse to disband their Shiite militias, and have rejected the idea of a regional peace conference involving neighboring Sunni states. There is new evidence that Iranian security services have been training and funding the Shiite militias in Iraq, and have now embedded military advisors in the militias themselves.

It is my view that Iraq is lost, but not to chaos per se, but to a regional set of Shiite leaders now in firm control of the Iraqi government and politics, desperate to right the wrongs of generations and bent on holding and expanding power at all costs. The Shiites have waited over 1,000 years to control an Arab Muslim country, and will use this new base to wage a pitched battle against their Sunni adverseries for the future of Islam and regional control.

- The expected reactions to this American-led reordering of the Middle East have begun. The Israelis went after Hezbollah this summer in large part to send a signal to the Iranians that despite the Americans failings their regional hegemonic desires would not go unchecked. Last week Sunni Saudi Arabia made it clear they are willing to go to war with Shiite-led Iraq if necessary. Finally, Al-Qaeda is developing a very strong base in Western Iraq as a vehicle to help protect Sunni Arabs against the Shiite majority.

A long post, I know. But very little of what I hear from our government seems to understand all this. While so much of our discussion now is about the Iraqis taking more responsibility for their country, in practical terms turning over the reins of power to the Iraqis means turning over the reigns of power to the region's Shiites. It also almost certainly means the strengthening of Iran, the revival of Al-Qaeda, a potential regional war and oil soaring way beyong $100 a barrel. If this is where we are headed our government better start having a big conversation with its people about the consequences of so many bad and niave decisions by the Republicans in charge of our government these past six years. I hope this process begins this week with the release of the Iraqi Study Group report.