Sunday, March 30, 2003

Lebanon's Shiites and Iraq
From Lebanon, one of the things to watch in the future is just how the country's Shiite community reacts to events in Iraq. Being discussed by many local commentators is the possibility that an Iraq freed of Saddam (and the U.S.) will emerge as an alternative to Iran as a source of religious and political inspiration to Lebanese Shiites.

Indeed, Arab Iraq is even more essential to Shiite history than Persian Iran, and a part of Lebanon's Shiite clergy was trained there, so this would hardly represent a fundamental shift.

Indeed, both Hizbullah and a senior Shiite cleric, Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah (who was educated at Najaf, in Iraq), have been highly critical of the U.S. and British attack, though they have carefully couched their opposition in the dual language of anti-Americanism and support for the Iraqi people, not the Baath regime. Their contempt for Saddam is unsurpassed, as they remember his murder of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (and his sister) in the early 1980s, among many other crimes.

From Hizbullah's perspective the Iraq conflict offers many advantages, to compliment the party's sustained support for the Intifada: it gives Hizbullah a regional reach which it has systematically sought to expand since the end of the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon in May 2000; it keeps the party close to its Shiite roots, in such a way that if the clerical regime in Iran is removed from power, Hizbullah will be able to replace it with a new spring of religious legitimacy; and it gives the party a fallback position if the U.S. presence in Iraq forces Syria to curtail Hizbullah's political and military margin of maneuver in southern Lebanon.

It also allows the party, somewhat cynically, to hook onto and benefit from anti-American crusade in the region that it neither initiated nor sustains.

Given all this, one might also see the emergence of even more of a rivalry between Hizbullah and Fadlallah, who have been on relatively bad terms in recent years, though there continues to be a mistaken impression in the West that Fadlallah (who was never even in the party's hierarchy) is Hizbullah's spiritual leader.

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