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Outside View: Don't ignite the Shiites

By M.D. NALAPAT, UPI Outside View Commentator

MANIPAL, India, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- The origins of al-Qaida can be traced to the decision taken by the British sometime in 1911 to back the raggedy assembly of Bedouins led by the al-Saud clan against the Turks. The add-on to this was the support it gave to Wahabism, a creed that had originated two centuries before, and which sought to smother the Muslim faith in its primitive desert beliefs and practices.

In 1932, London served as midwife to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a Wahabi outpost in a sea of moderate Sufi peoples, and has backed it ever since, being joined by the United States soon after World War II. If then the reason for this support was Turkey, from the 1960s till 1979 it was Arab nationalism, exemplified first by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and by the secular if thuggish Baath regimes in Syria and Iraq.

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That year, Moscow made the mistake of invading Afghanistan, and then-CIA Director William Casey, followed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, accepted the Saudi suggestion that they use Pashtun Wahabis trained in Pakistan to drive out the Soviets, rather than the far more numerous Pashtun nationalists. Of course the nationalists loathed Pakistan, while the Wahabis were dependent on that state's jihadi army.

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Although the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States made obvious the consequences of this strategy of using the devil to kill a snake, the influence of the Saudi establishment has sufficed to ensure that the world's pre-eminent power, the United States, continues to pursue a policy related less to Western security interests than to the needs of the al-Sauds. In brief, Washington is the primary buttress behind the Saudi effort to retain its grip over a great faith and its billion-plus adherents.

If U.S. forces are gasping for breath in Iraq, it is in large part due to the deliberate decision of previous U.S. administrations to see Arab nationalism as a threat to Western primacy, whereas in fact, the principal target of this ideology is what may be called the "Wahabi International." In Iraq, the skeletal clusters of al-Qaida are able to operate on the present scale only through their opportunistic alliance with Iraqi nationalists, most of whom loathed Saddam Hussein for his clannish and cruel rule, even as circumstances forced them to join the Baath Party.

Today, however, U.S. policy in the Middle East is in danger of igniting a threat that in its future effects could dwarf that posed by Wahabi terrorism. This is the Shiites. Unlike Sunnis and even Wahabis, who need to be nudged toward "martyrdom," believing Shiites would need far less motivation to persuade them to put on human bomb jackets. The war on terror would face a new front, and the modern Napoleons in the White House their Moscow winter.

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Conspiracy theorists among the Shiites believe that it is Saudi links with the Bush family and well-connected others that are fuelling what is unmistakably a U.S. policy that places Saudi Wahabi interests above those of the West.

For example, U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad has been unrelenting in demanding of the Shiites in the south that they agree to give a "fair" proportion of Iraq's oil revenue to the Sunni regions in the center and west. However, as yet, no Bushman has demanded of the Saudis that they transfer any share of the wealth created by oil flowing overwhelmingly from the Shiite-populated regions in the east and south of that country ruled by an absolutist monarchy.

And if Washington is concerned about the marginalization of the Shiites even in countries such as Bahrain, where they form the bulk of the population, that is yet to be communicated, even as the Khalilzads bully the Shiites into giving a disproportionate share of power to the Sunni, especially that faction owing allegiance to the Wahabi faith.

Unless George Bush shows as much concern for the Shiites in countries where they are disenfranchised and discriminated against, their anger against the country he leads will grow to levels that could tip them toward a Wahabi-style jihad against the West, an outcome that would spell catastrophe for the globe.

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In order to retrieve the situation, policymakers in Washington and elsewhere need to act on the evidence that the primary threat to their interests comes from Wahabism, and that the sheet-anchor of this retrogressive faith is the Saudi royal family. Rather than pull away from the promotion of democracy in the Middle East, George Bush needs to expand his vision to cover the country where his family has such substantial business experience -- Saudi Arabia -- and work toward giving the Shiites and other non-Wahabis in that country the same rights that he is demanding from the al-Maliki regime for Iraqi Sunnis.

Ultimately, it is not the West that is the foe of the Shiites, but the Wahabi, and it is to that direction, not toward the West, that the attention of this long-persecuted people needs to turn.

But that can happen only in a context in which (a) the Wahabis are isolated, together with the Khomeinists and (b) the United States follows an even-handed policy between the Shiites and the Sunni, not just in Iraq but in the region.

The present borders of the countries there reflect only the perceptions of France and Britain in the early part of the last century as to what their interests were. By seeking to preserve the poisonous legacy of their 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, President George W. Bush may leave for his successors a foe even more lethal than that left by Casey and Brzezinski to their successors.

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The Shiites have, in Mao Zedong's words, "stood up." It is time to show that the West is their ally and not part of the ongoing Wahabi campaign to batter them back into submission.

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(Professor M.D. Nalapat is director of the School of Geopolitics at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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