Shiites on a roll; may muddle U.S. policy

Aug. 20, 2006 at 3:33 PM

WASHINGTON, Aug. 20 (UPI) -- U.S. policy in the Middle East faces new challenges as the minority Shiite Muslims experience a resurgence of influence, a report says.

The Washington Times said Sunday the strong showing Shiite-dominated Hezbollah put on in its recent conflict with Israel gave it increased status in a region where most moderate governments are run by the rival Sunnis.

Middle East scholar Vali Nasr told the newspaper that Sunni governments were made to look somewhat feckless in their dealings with the hated Jewish state.

"The Shiites can say, 'We performed better than the Sunnis in standing up for our interests,'" Nasr said. "Hezbollah defended little villages in southern Lebanon better than Saddam Hussein defended Baghdad."

The closest Arab U.S. allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are run by Sunnis and have long-running internal opposition from Muslim militants who carry a dislike of the United States.

Iran, considered the primary troublemaker in the Middle East, is considered a Shiite regime as is even the fledgling government in Iraq, the report said.

Despite the gloomy possibilities of an increasingly unfriendly Arab bloc, scholars reminded the Times that the historical schism between Shiites and Sunnis often has local roots and can wax and wane depending on local politics.

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