As Sunni ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, marches on Baghdad, Shiite Iran has promised to aid the predominantly Shiite Iraqi government in defending the capital and southern Iraq. In the sectarian Middle East, it has always been Iran and Iraq against the world.
The only majority Shiite countries on the planet alongside the tiny island nation of Bahrain, Iraq and Iran have been virtual islands in the sea of Sunni Muslim nations that is the Middle East. They have only each other, and as religious and ethnic violence grows in the Fertile Crescent, a conflict that began nearly 1,400 years ago is threatening to engulf the region.
Sunni and Shiite Muslims divided immediately after the death of Muhammad in 632 over the question of his successor. Muhammad had no male heir. The Sunni faction advocated for a politically powerful Caliph, unrelated to Muhammad, who would be able to consolidate and expand the burgeoning Islamic empire. The partisans who became the Shia supported Muhammad’s cousin Ali as true scion of the Prophet and his spiritual authority. Shiite Muslims consider sites in Iraq sacred because Sunni assassins murdered Ali’s grandson Hussein there, cementing the Sunni Caliphate.
Which brings us to today, where the conflict in Syria has become increasingly sectarian between Shiite minority government forces and Sunni majority rebels. ISIS, the apparently strongest and best coordinated Sunni militia, has turned its sights on Shiite Baghdad. As I wrote yesterday, ISIS has advertised its desire to renew the Sunni Caliphate, something the Shia cannot allow, especially as ISIS insurgents draw nearer to their holy sites. This has prompted the Iraqi cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to issue a call for all Shiite Muslims to take up arms against the Sunni advance. More than a civil war, the war in Iraq today is a religious one.
As the Shiite population of Iraq arms itself, and Shiite Iran promises aid, the fuse appears uncurled as the powder keg of the Middle East is ever-closer to combusting along ancient lines. President Obama, whether or not he is conscious of it, is aligning the United States with minority Shiite Islam as he promises aid of some sort (but no troops) to support the Iraqi and Iranian efforts against Sunni ISIS. But perhaps that’s fitting; al-Qaeda, and the rest of the terror networks America has waged war on, consist of radical Sunnis.
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