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Radicalization of the Sunni-Shi’a Divide

This article is an edited updated version of two presentations: Is a Coalition Viable in the Islamist Camp? The Sunni – Shi’a Divide, at the Proteus Futures Academic Workshop “Analyzing Future National Security Challenges,” Center for Strategic Leadership, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA, USA, 22-24 August 2006; and Radicalization of the Sunni-Shi’a Divide: from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Iraq, Lebanon, and the Gulf at the Sixth Annual International Conference on Global Terrorism of The Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), Herzlyia, Israel, September 11-14, 2006.

The war in Iraq has produced a tremendous change in the Middle East and in the Muslim world at large. For the first time in history, an Arab country is controlled by the Shi’a. The West does not grasp yet the full meaning of the Shi’a revival and the potential for deep change in many of the countries in the region and their regimes where Shiites represent the majority or an important minority.

One of the important questions since 9/11 and more so since the war in Iraq is if the potential for a coalition between radical Sunni and Shi’a forces active in the region can indeed materialize.

If we consider the al-Qaeda’s attempts to unify the Muslim umma the first such attempt was the formation of the World Islamic Front (WIF) for the Struggle against Jews and Crusaders proclaimed by bin Laden on February 22, 1998, whose goal was to form an international alliance of Sunni Islamist organizations, groups, and Muslim clerics sharing a common religious/political ideology and a global strategy of Holy War (jihad). But this movement or framework practically did not exist as an operational organization. The three terrorist attacks staged from February 1998 until September 11, 2001 (9/11) – the bombings of the US embassies in Africa in August 1998, the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000 and the major 9/11 attacks in the US – were actually the work of the al-Qaeda hardcore group. After the war in Afghanistan, the WIF was replaced in the spring of 2002 by a new name, or perhaps framework – Qa’idat al-Jihad (The Jihad Base) – and the brand name WIF virtually disappeared.

After the war in Afghanistan and until the Madrid bombings in March 2004, in spite of bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, and other al-Qa’ida spokes persons’ repeated threats to hit devastatingly at the heart of the United States and the Western world, all successful terrorist attacks have targeted Muslim countries (and Muslim communities such as Mombassa, Kenya). Local or regional groups affiliated with al-Qaeda were primarily responsible for these operations. They include the Salafi factions in Tunisia and Morocco; Yemeni Islamists; or the Indonesian Jemma’a Islamiyya (in fact a group led from Indonesia by Abu Bakr Bashir but with Malaysian, Philippine, and Singaporean branches striving to form a new regional Islamic state). Even the suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia in May 2003 were not clearly related to the al-Qaeda leadership.[1]

In an early al-Qaeda document, The Third Letter to the Africa Corps, one of the organization’s strategists already emphasized the difficulty of building a coalition:

We must keep completely away from any attempt at organizational merger for the reason that the practical experience of Muslims tells us that every attempt at merger causes numerous divisions and splits. So the attempts to merge must end. We have to be satisfied with coordination in practical fields. In and of itself, this will lay the proper groundwork for organizational unity in the distant future, or until God wills that the Mahdi appear.[2]

Since bin Laden nominated Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as the representative of al-Qaeda in Iraq in December 2004 growing strategic and tactical disagreements appeared between the various leaders of the jihadist movements. The disagreements relate to three main issues:

(1) The need to define the main struggle front after the beginning of the terrorist jihadist activity in Saudi Arabia in May 2003 – Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or possibly Egypt.

(2) The killing of innocent Muslims. The growing number of innocent Muslims killed in terrorist attacks due to the increasing violence in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, have produced negative reactions among Arab public opinion and the need to delineate tactical “red lines.”

(3) The Sunni-Shi’a divide, probably the most important issue at stake in the Middle East. With the growing strategic and political status of the Shi’a in Iraq and the potential threat they represent in the entire Gulf area, the Shi’a have been designated as the Sunni jihadist movement’s main enemy

Is a coalition viable in the Islamist radical camp? The Sunni-Shi’a divide

The numerous religious, political, socio-economic and sometimes ethnic conflicts between Sunni and Shi’a communities throughout the Muslim world impact on the behavior of the more radical organizations and also the supportive state players, which can use these conflicts for ideological or tactical reasons to increase the solidarity with allied groups. The existence of two parallel Islamist trends, the revolutionary Iranian Shi’a model as opposed to the radical Sunni Wahhabi or Salafi one affects the ideology and strategy of the numerous violent groups active in the Muslim world, as clearly proved in the open terrorist war between Sunni and Shi’a groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan and in Iraq and these days on the issue of Hizballah’s war against Israel.

What are the sources of these conflicts and how do they influence upon the potential of a coalition between the radical Sunnis from the al-Qaeda camp and the radical Shi’a from the Iranian camp?

According to the Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said Isbir, the history of the Muslims since the inception of the Islamic State [is] a continuous endless war, with the aim of negating pluralism inside Islam on the basis of a single simple power center with its sources in a unique religion. This war has never ended: in a way or another its flames were never spent, not only among the two antagonistic groups, the Sunni and the Shi’a, but also among other less known and less involved ones.[3]

The Shi‘a number around 130 million people globally, some 10 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims. The overwhelming majority of Shi‘a (approximately 120 million) live in the area between Lebanon and Pakistan, where they constitute the majority population in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan; the single-largest community in Lebanon; and sizeable minorities in various Gulf emirates, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan (as well as in neighboring countries such as India and Tajikistan and in East Africa). From the marshes of southern Iraq to the ghettoes of Karachi, the Shi‘a have been the underdogs – oppressed and marginalized by Sunni ruling regimes and majority communities.

In a concise and persuasive article, Vali Nasr examines the background to the Shi’a revival in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and its implications for the larger Middle East. He stresses the role of the Iranian revolution of 1979 in mobilizing the Shi‘a identity and pushing for specifically Shi‘a agendas by supporting financially and politically groups such as Amal in Lebanon, al-Da’waa al-Islamiya (the Islamic Call) in Iraq, Hizb-i Wahdat (Party of Unity) in Afghanistan, and Tahrik-i Jafaria (Shi‘a Movement) in Pakistan. The Tehran-Damascus axis is part of Iran’s Shi‘a expansionist agenda and enabled it to establish Hizballah in Lebanon, supporting the organization throughout the 1980s and 1990s to confront the U.S. presence in Lebanon and entrench Iranian influence among Lebanese According to Nasr, revolutionary Iran failed to alter the balance of power between the Shi‘a and Sunnis across the region and ultimately gave up trying to do so, while the Saudis became the defenders of Sunnism and the symbol of its resistance to Shi‘a “usurpers.” [4]

According to this view, Saudi Arabia was motivated by the desire both to control its own Shi‘a minority and to thwart Khomeini’s challenge to the Islamic legitimacy of the kingdom. Riyadh’s investment in Sunni militancy did not raise much concern in the West in the 1980s and the 1990s, for during this period Iran and its brand of Shi‘a militancy were viewed as the most dangerous face of Islam and the main threat to Western interests. The Shi‘a were then associated with anti-Americanism, revolution, terrorism, hostage taking, and suicide bombing. Nasr considers that after Khomeini’s death in 1988, Shi‘a militancy ceased to be the ideological force that animated Islamic activism and it was replaced by Sunni militancy following the 1991 Gulf War, at least partially if not primarily as a response to the Shi‘a activism that followed the Iranian revolution.[5]

Saddam’s fall has radically changed that balance by empowering the Shi‘a majority and the Shi‘a-Sunni competition for power has emerged as the greatest determinant of peace and stability in Iraq directly influencing the broader region from Lebanon to Pakistan. However, the Shi‘a revival and the decline in Sunni power in Iraq has not created Sunni militancy; it has invigorated and emboldened it. The anti-Shi‘a violence that plagues Iraq today was first born in South Asia and Afghanistan in the 1990s by militant groups with ties to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The bombings in Baghdad, Karbala, Najaf, and other Shi‘a strongholds in Iraq have claimed many lives but these attacks closely resemble acts in Mashad, Karachi, Quetta, and Mazar-i Sharif since the early 1990s. The current sectarian threat in Iraq is therefore, more the product of a deeply rooted rivalry in the region than the direct result of recent developments in Iraq.[6]

Pakistan’s bloody sectarian war

The Pakistani Shia community representing 15 to 20 % of the population, i.e. about 25 millions persons and traditionally linked to the ulema of Najaf, stayed away from politics till the mid-1970s. The Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the transposition on Pakistani soil of the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the islamisation policy launched by general Zia ul Haq from 1979 with the aim of transforming Pakistan into a Sunni state, all these factors contributed to a religious and political mobilization of the Shia community. The Tehrik-e Nifaz-e Fiqh-e Jaafria (TNFJ) later renamed Tehrik-e Jaafria (TEJ) Pakistan, a religious movement founded in 1980, became more radical from 1985 on and under the leadership of Allama Arif Hussein al Husseini transformed itself into a political party in 1987. His assassination in 1988 marked the start of widespread sectarian violence which has continued since the early 1990s.[7] To counter the growing political assertiveness of the Shias and their political party the (TEJ), Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military dictator of the 1980s, encouraged and assisted Sunni extremist organizations such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP).

The anti-Shi’a campaign and violence in Pakistan have been largely the work of the militant Deobandi-Wahabi, who are a minority in Pakistan, but enjoy tremendous influence because of the support of the military-intelligence establishment and the seemingly inexhaustible flow of funds from Saudi Arabia.[8]

The bloody sectarian war between Pakistan’s Shiis and Sunnis caused between January 1989 and May 31, 2005 a total of 1,784 Pakistanis casualties and another 4,279 injured persons across the country. And there are some indications that the trends may worsen. Thus, 187 persons were killed and another 619 were injured in 19 incidents of sectarian violence in 2004. Within the first five months of 2005, 120 Pakistanis have lost their lives, and 286 have been injured in 30 incidents of sectarian violence.[9]

An aggravating feature of this sectarian violence has been the growing number of suicide bombings in or near mosques or holy shrines and mutual assassinations of major religious leaders. Thus, on March 19, 2005, 50 people were killed and over 100 others injures during a bomb explosion near the shrine of a Shi’a saint at Fatehpur village in the Balochistan province; on May 27, 2005, at least 25 people were killed and approximately 100 others injured during a suicide bombing at the Bari Imam Shi’a shrine in the capital Islamabad; on February 9, 2006, 40 people were killed and 50 others wounded in a suspected suicide attack on a Muharram procession of Shi’a Muslims in the Hangu town of North West Frontier Province (see also Annex).[10]

Al-Qaeda groups and affiliates were directly involved in this sectarian conflict. Pakistani Sunni, Taliban, and al-Qaeda combatants fought together in military campaigns in Afghanistan, most notably in the capture of Mazar-i Sharif and Bamiyan in 1997, which involved the wide-scale massacre of the Shi‘a. Pakistani Sipah-i Sahabah fighters did most of the killing, nearly precipitating a war with Iran when they captured the Iranian consulate and killed 11 Iranian diplomats.[11]

According to Indian sources, Ramzi Yousef, now in jail in the US for his involvement in the New York World Trade Centre explosion of February 1993, Maulana Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM), Fazlur Rahman Khalil of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM) and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, started their career as terrorists as members of the SSP and participated in many of its anti-Shia massacres in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. The suspicion that the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM) by the Pakistani authorities in Rawalpindi in March 2003 and his handing over to FBI was a result of the betrayal of the Hazaras (Shias) of Balouchistan provoked several deadly attacks against Shi’as. The massacre of the Shias in Quetta in March 2004 was in reprisal partly for their suspected collaboration with the Americans in their hunt for bin Laden and partly for the murder of Maulana Azam Tariq, the leader of the SSP, allegedly by Shi’a extremists.[12]

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf

Already in November 1997, almost parallel to the occupation of the Mecca sanctuary by radical Sunnis under the leadership of Muhammad al-Utaybi and Abdallah al-Qahtani, Shi’a demonstrations in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia marked a new activism which degenerated in their first intifada, the spontaneous uprising.[13] Saudi Hizbollah known locally as the Followers of the Line of the Imam [Khomeini]. (Ansar Khat al-Imam) was founded in 1987 by several prominent clerics, including Sheikh Hashim al-Shukus, Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Hubail and Abduljalil al-Maa, from the Eastern Province. The organization espouses Khomeini’s principle of vilayat-e-faqih, and most members emulate the marja’iyya of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The Followers of the Line of the Imam wholly distrust the ruling family and government. For the most part, that sentiment has translated into isolation though it reportedly slipped into periodic violence.[14] Interestingly, the extent of Wahhabi hostility toward the Shi’a is expressed by the dissemination since the beginning of the 19th century of a myth according to which the founder of Shi’ism was a Jew named Abdallah ibn Saba.[15]

The truck bombing in June 1996 of the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where 19 members of the US Air Force personnel were killed and hundreds of other Americans were injured, has been the main terrorist attack by Shi’a radicals in Saudi Arabia. According to the US indictment against the perpetrators, Iranian officials and Lebanese Hizballah operatives were involved in the plot. The government cracked down on Saudi Hizbollah in the wake of the Khobar bombing but there are some indications Hizbollah/The Followers of the Line of the Imam may have increased their presence and influence of late by focusing on social and cultural activities to the exclusion of politics. [16]

The war in Iraq and the concomitant empowerment of the country’s Shiites again fuelled anti-Shiite hostility. Posters on a popular web-forum stressed that, “they are the enemy, they are the enemy, they are the enemy”, adding “God damn the rafida”. Acts of violence against Shiites have risen over recent years, uncorroborated rumors of planned or failed attacks have spread rapidly within the community. Over the past two years, incidents with an apparent sectarian connotation include the burning of Shiite mosques in Qatif and community centers in Tarut, as well as vandalism against a Shiite cemetery at Annak. Sunni-Shiite issues are taking on greater public importance in Saudi Arabia. Of particular concern for the future of Sunni-Shiite relations has been the alarming rise in the number of Saudi jihadi militants drawn to Iraq. Hostility to Shiites and their growing role in Iraq also is important as many Saudi jihadis went to Iraq “to kill Shiites.” The prospect of the eventual return of several hundreds of battle-tested Saudi mujahidin from Iraq raises the possibility that – like their predecessors returning from Afghanistan – they will look for a new battlefield and so pose a potential threat to the Shiite minority.[17]

The Sunni-Shi’a divide in Iraq

Al-Qaeda. From the September 2003 assassination of Ayatollah al-Hakim and to present, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has made the utmost effort to provoke the Shi’a of Iraq to retaliate against the Sunnis and thus trigger a civil war. This strategy, reflecting the common Wahhabi doctrine, became obvious after US authorities leaked a letter written by him in January 2004. The Shi’a were described as “the most evil of mankind…the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy, and the penetrating venom.” Their crime was “patent polytheism, worshipping at graves, and circumambulating shrines.”[18]

Zarqawi’s position contradicted bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s views concerning the Shi’a. It should be noted that in his audio message of February 2003, bin Laden stressed the importance of the Sunnis and Shi’a fighting united against the Americans. He even cited Hizballah’s 1983 suicide bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut as the first “American defeat” at the hands of Islamist radicals.[19]

The victorious image in the Arab and Muslim world achieved by the Shi’a Hizballah movement and its leader Hasan Nasrallah after the Israeli unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000 and, more recently, the exchange of prisoners (including many Palestinians) between Israel and Hizballah in January 2004, created much resentment and criticism in Saudi jihadi-Salafi elements. Moreover, the presentation of Nasrallah as the “New Salah al-Din” put the role of the global vanguard of Islam played by Qa’idat al-Jihad at risk for a takeover by the Hizballah. Since the process of establishing a new government in Iraq, with a clear Shi’a majority, Salafi web sites and forums have stepped up their attacks against the Shi’a, Iran, and Shi’a doctrines.[20]

It is of note that in the end it was bin Laden who accepted the strategy of Zarqawi and the Saudi jihadists, recognizing the predominance of the leaders who continued the fight on the ground rather than that of the nominal leadership which was hiding somewhere in Pakistan. This process took a whole year (from December 2003 to December 2004) and resulted in the nomin[21]ation of Zarqawi as the “emir” of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

In a video aired on al-Jazeera, in what appears to be a response to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call on his Shi’a followers to vote en masse and decree that those who boycott the elections are “infidels,” bin Laden warned against the participation in elections [in Iraq]: “Anyone who participates in these elections… has committed apostasy against Allah.” He also endorsed the killing of security people “in Allah’s name.”[22]

However, bin Laden’s attack on the Shi’a has been cautious, without referring directly to their leaders. Interestingly, in a book which includes most of his statements, there is no one reference to the Shi’a as such, let alone an attack on the Shi’a.

This important issue has continued to trouble the relations between the al-Qaeda leadership and al-Zarqawi, as evidenced in the letter sent to the latter by Ayman al-Zawahiri in July 2005. In this major document Zawahiri acknowledges “the extent of danger to Islam of the Twelve’er school of Shiism… a religious school based on excess and falsehood,” and “their current reality of connivance with the Crusaders.” He admits that the “collision between any state based on the model of prophecy with the Shia is a matter that will happen sooner or later.” The question he and “mujahedeen circles” ask Zarqawi is “about the correctness of this conflict with the Shia at this time. Is it something that is unavoidable? Or, is it something can be put off until the force of the mujahed movement in Iraq gets stronger?”

Moreover, Zawahiri remembers Zarqawi that “more than one hundred prisoners – many of whom are from the leadership who are wanted in their countries – [are] in the custody of the Iranians.” The attacks against the Shia in Iraq could compel “the Iranians to take counter measures.” Actually, al-Qaeda “and the Iranians need to refrain from harming each other at this time in which the Americans are targeting” them.[23] This is indeed a new kind of real-politik on the part of al-Qaeda leadership!

However, this did not change Zarqawi’s position. In his last audio message he blasted Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, as the “leader of infidelity and atheism,” accused Shiite groups and government forces of being responsible for numerous attacks on Sunnis and suggested that Shiites themselves were behind the February bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samara. He also criticized the militia of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for stopping the fight against American forces.[24]

In a recent interview with al-Qaeda’s media production unit on the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Ayman al-Zawahiri suggested for the first time that Zarqawi’s murderous behavior toward the Shiites had not been sanctioned by bin Laden: “The instructions of Sheikh Osama, may God protect him, to the brothers in Iraq, chief among them Abu Musab…were that they focus their efforts on the Americans and neutralize the rest of the powers as best they could.” Al-Zawahiri dismissed the interviewer’s claim that many thought al-Qaeda initiated the Shiite-Sunni fighting, saying that “al-Qaeda has not done anything to them [the Shiites] because al-Qaeda in Iraq is too busy with jihad against the Crusader occupation.”[25]

The Shi’a. For a year and a half, from August 2003 until February 2005, Sunni attacks met with barely a response from most Shiites. The only ones accused of meting out revenge from the outset were members of the Badr Organisation, allegedly responsible for the assassination of former regime officials and suspected Baath party members, in addition to suspected insurgents, but for a long time these actions did not reach critical mass. However, once the Shiite parties, brought together in the United Iraqi Alliance, won a simple majority of votes in the January 2005 elections and, in alliance with the Kurdish list, gained power three months later, the SCIRI took over the Interior Ministry, allowing the Badr Corps to infiltrate its police and commando units. Soon, Iraqis witnessed a steep rise in killings of Sunnis that could not be explained by the fight against insurgents alone.[26]

Arab Shi’ites have been increasingly polarized by the Sunni suicide attacks on Shi’ite targets, kidnappings, and disappearances which have intensified since the January 2005 elections. They are all too aware that figures like Zarqawi have threatened jihad against Shi’ites and have said they are not legitimate followers of Islam. Although the CPA tried to establish legal barriers to maintaining militias the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the faction of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim still have large militia elements. These are forces that Sunni groups have increasingly accused of committing atrocities against them since the spring of 2005. Sunnis feel particularly threatened by the Badr Organization, created by SCIRI and trained by the Iranian military. Sunnis assert that the Badr are the ones responsible for the targeting and assassination of a number of senior Sunni clerics, many from the Muslim Scholars’ Board. Some of the killings of an estimated 700 Sunnis between August and November 2005 involved men who identified themselves as Ministry of Interior forces. US sources also noted that large number of members of the Badr Organization had joined the MOI forces, including the police and commando units, since the new government was formed in April 2003, and the lines between some MOI units and the Badr Organization had become increasingly blurred.[27]

Moqtada al-Sadr has played a divisive role in Iraq since the first days after the fall of Saddam Hussein. He has been accused of playing a role in the murder of rival Shi’ite clerics like the Grand Ayatollah Abd al-Majid al-Khoi on April 10, 2003. In October 2003 al-Sadr’s men attacked supporters of moderate Shi’ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani near the Imam Hussein shrine. He attacked the US presence in Iraq almost immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein. His Mahdi Army presented a serious threat to Coalition and government forces in Najaf, in Sadr City in Baghdad, and in other Shi’ite areas in the south during much of the summer and early fall of 2004. Since the elections Sadr revived the Mahdi Army, which was again beginning to be openly active in parts of Southern Iraq such as Basra, Amarah, and Nasiriyah, and still had cells in Najaf and Qut as well. Since the fall of 2005, his organization and other Shi’ite groups with similar beliefs have been accused of political assassinations and kidnappings.[28] Some Iranian leaders appear to view Sadr as a useful potential ally with whom they might cooperate in the same way they have worked with the leadership of the Lebanese group, Sadr’s movement has parallels with Hizballah, and Tehran may view the Hizballah model as instructive to Iraq under current circumstances.[29]

The Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades compete with the Iraqi police for control in Iraq’s largest cities, Baghdad and Basra, are well organized and gain popular support with their religious character and their ability to provide security and certain social services. Some police and army units within the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have moved away from their original training and developed independent and often problematic methods of operation.[30]


During the last year there seemed to be a possible change in al-Qaeda’s and Zarqawi’s strategy in relation to Iran and its proxy organization the Lebanese Hizballah. It is possible that the rocket attack by Zarqawi’s men from southern Lebanon on northern Israel in December 2005 was a first step in some kind of understanding between the two sides, al-Qaeda and Iran, which permitted the attack from a territory notably known to be under the rigorous control of Hizballah.

It took two weeks to Hizballah to deny its knowledge of the attack and to caution against the use of territory considered under its responsibility: “There are some [operatives] in Lebanon,” said Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hizballah’s deputy secretary-general. “We don’t know how many and we don’t know their plans or if they intend to do [military] operations here…[and] it’s important to caution everyone not to make Lebanon an arena for settling scores.” He claimed it is indeed possible to act without Hizballah’s knowledge and that the organization is still investigating the al-Qaeda claim.[31]

The Lebanese authorities arrested 13 al-Qaeda suspects in different parts of the country and charged them with “establishing a gang to carry out terrorist acts, forging official and private documents and possessing unlicensed arms.” Among the thirteen al-Qaeda suspects were seven Syrians, three Lebanese, a Saudi Arabian, a Jordanian and a Palestinian. Beirut’s Daily Star reported an alleged al-Qaeda statement that warned the Palestinians camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon that they would face attacks from al-Qaeda if they did not conform to their ideology.[32]

Interestingly, in April 2006 nine men were charged with plotting to assassinate Hizballah’s secretary-general Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. They were presented as “Salafists who saw in Sheik Nasrallah a good Shiite target to avenge the death of Sunnis in Iraq.” Nasrallah himself declared that he would not blame Lebanon’s Sunnis if the conspirators were shown to be motivated by Sunni militancy.[33]

It is of note that several days before his death Zarqawi called for the disarmament of Lebanon’s Hizballah, according to an audio message posted on the Internet. He accused Hizballah of serving as a “shield protecting the Zionist enemy [Israel] against the strikes of the mujahideen in Lebanon,” in a reference to Sunni Arab militants loyal to the al-Qaeda network. In reaction, a Hizballah spokesman dismissed Zarqawi’s call, accusing him of trying to “distort the image of the resistance and its leaders,” through the media.[34]

Possibly, this volte-face of Zarqawi after the attempt to operate from southern Lebanon under the benevolent neutrality of Hizballah is a result of his intricate relationship with Iran.

On June 2, 2006 Hizballah organized in Beirut riots protesting the broadcast of a sketch on an LBC television program ridiculing the Shiite militia’s position on disarmament, implying that Hizballah would make any excuse to avoid laying down its weapons. The show’s producer apologized, but the demonstrations did not end until Nasrallah himself appeared on Hizballah’s own al-Manar network and appealed for calm. The Hizballah demonstrations were intended to support the group in the framework of the Lebanese National Dialogue, because Hizballah is no hurry to give up its weapons. Not only do the weapons support the party’s “resistance” credentials, the Shiite party also likely sees its arms as an insurance policy against the possible entrenchment of al-Qaeda in Lebanon. Nasrallah acknowledged the danger of the “Zarqawi phenomenon” during interviews in February and June 2006. According to this view, the presence of anti-Shiite al-Qaeda forces will only stiffen Hizballah’s resolve to retain its weapons, which it sees as essential to defending the Shiite community.[35]

The Shia Crescent

According to Jordan’s King Abdullah, Iran’s meddling in the recent Iraqi elections was an attempt by Tehran “to create a Shi’ite crescent from Iran to Syria and Lebanon”. Some