In the darkest days of the war so far, U.S. Marines last April poised for a final assault on the Sunni-insurgent held city of Falluja; meanwhile, 120 miles to the south, other Marines faced a Shia uprising in Najaf. Rallying to the cause of Falluja, Sunnis and Shias joined forces to ferry supplies from Baghdad to the City of Mosques. Faced with the nightmare of a country-wide uprising, the Bush Administration halted the attack on Falluja in late April, turning over "control" to one of Saddam's former generals. Insurgents soon recaptured the city, transforming it into a base of operations. And though Marines eventually retook the ancient smuggler's den this fall--at the cost of 130 soldiers and unknown numbers of Iraqi civilians--the April pullback is widely seen as a defeat for the American "occupier" and a moral-boosting victory for the Iraqi "resistance."
Thus the conventional wisdom regarding Falluja. But is it true?
Consider: four months later, as U.S. troops encircle Najaf and tighten their grip around rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his al-Mahdi militiamen, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani suddenly returns from London, where he was undergoing treatment for a heart condition; the following day, the 74 year-old leads a march of 10,000 people to end the fighting in the holy city. During Sadr's similar insurrection in April, Sistani seemed to stay on the sidelines, content to see the U.S. and the chipmunk-cheeked cleric bloody themselves in inconclusive fighting. Now, however, the Shia's spiritual leader throws the weight of his prestige against Sadr, forcing the rebel to stand down. Why? What happened?
The answer may actually be the operational-level manifestation of a larger geopolitical strategy the U.S. is using in its current efforts to democratize the Middle East: play the Sunnis and Shia off against each other, with a subtle, but noticeable, tilt toward the Party of Ali.
In many ways, the roots of the War on Terror lie in a civil war within dar-al-Islam between an increasingly Wahhabi-dominated ummah and a Shia minority whom many hardline Salafists consider heretical (indeed, according to literature subsidized by Our Friends the Saudis, Shiism is actually a cult initiated by a Jew named Abdullah Saba to undermine Islam). Certainly, as Stephen Schwartz posits in his book The Two Faces of Islam, Osama bin Laden's bid to become the head Islamofascist was, in large part, an attempt to steal the honor from the Shia heirs of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. With an eye toward the Biblical admonishment that a house divided against itself cannot stand, the U.S. may be exploiting this sectarian rift to insure that the House of Islam--or at least its most virulent aspects--cannot stand against the tide of democracy.
In Iraq, as we know, the animosity between the Sunnis and Shia can run hot and deep. Ever since the U.S. became embroiled in the Sunni Triangle, the Shia Hawza has watched with satisfaction as we hunt down and eliminate the Sunni gunmen and bases of operations--essentially, as Charles Krauthammer has observed, fighting their side of the Iraqi civil war for them. But last April, the U.S. suddenly hesitated to land the killer punch.
To the Shia, this must have brought back memories of their disastrous 1920 uprising against the British, which led to an alliance between the U.K. and the Sunnis, condemning them to 80 years of powerlessness and eventual persecution under Saddam. Fears that the U.S. might cut a similar deal with the Sunnis may have prompted Sistani's deus ex machina-like descent from his hospital bed to deal, once and for all, with the violent aspirations of Sadr. Then, in Act Three, the Marines return to Falluja this fall, this time finishng the job.
Tacking back and forth between the Sunni and Shia like this, the U.S.--which, despite what people might think, is neither helpless nor hapless when dealing with refractory religious groups--has managed to keep Iraq from splintering into sectarian pieces in the run-up to elections.
We can perhaps detect this strategy throughout the larger Middle East. In a recent interview with Washington Post reporters, Jordan's King Abdullah expressed fears of a Shia "crescent," extending from Iran and Iraq into Lebanon--where Shiism is the largest of the country's numerous religious sects--and Syria, where the Allawi (an offshoot of Shiism) hold political power. Abdullah, a Sunni monarch--hence a man with reason to fear both democracy and Shiism--told the WaPo
If Iraq goes Islamic republic, then, yes, we've opened ourselves to a whole set of new problems that will not be limited to the borders of Iraq...Even Saudi Arabia is not immune from this. It would be a major problem.
Our hearts bleed. A look at a map shows the possibility of Shia-dominated areas soon ringing OFTS, reminiscent of the way the U.S. surrounded the Soviet Union with bases, missiles and client states. Note as well that the Saudis 200,000 or so Shia reside in the oil-rich areas of the desert kingdom.
As the U.S. surrounds Iran with bases in its client states of Afghanistan and Iraq, it also seems to be laying the foundation for a Shia encirclement of Saudi Arabia. The key, of course, is Iran. As long as the mullahs retain control of the country, and continue to spread mischief in Iraq and surrounding areas, we will not soon see a pro-American "green belt" of Shiism encircling the font of Wahhabi evil. But the Iranian people are perhaps the most disposed toward the U.S. in the Middle East. Once the mullahs fall--as they will before long--we could witness democracy, or something close to it, sweep through the heart of the Muslim world, fulfilling the long-deferred dreams of the Shia faithful.