Fear of Shiite rule in Iraq grows among Sunni Arabs


AMMAN, Jordan -- This hilly Jordanian capital has become Baghdad West, where hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have taken refuge. Many are rich Sunni supporters of Saddam Hussein who know they have no future in Iraq. Sixty percent of real estate sold in Amman last year is said to have been bought by Iraqis.

Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi came here to try to entice prominent Sunni Iraqis-in-exile to abandon their community's widespread boycott of Iraq's elections. He failed.

In Amman, a visitor quickly senses the tensions that threaten to tear Iraq apart.

Jordan, like Iraq's other Arab neighbors, is a nation of Sunnis, the Muslim mainstream. Sunnis and Shiite Muslims both revere the Quran, but they disagree over who should have been the rightful successor to the prophet Mohammed.

Iraq's Arab neighbors were comfortable with the rule of Saddam Hussein, who enabled Iraq's 20 percent Sunni minority to dominate its 60 percent Shiite population.

But now that Iraqi Sunnis have lost their power -- and are clustering in Amman -- a paranoia about Shiites is rising in Jordan. In the lobby of the Four Seasons, Sunni Iraqis -- and some secular Shiites -- relate their fears that a Shiite takeover will lead to a reign of ayatollahs.

Never mind that Iraq's Shiite religious establishment doesn't embrace the philosophy of its co-religionists in Iran and rejects the idea that clerics should rule. Never mind that Iraqi Shiites are Arab, not Persian.

Jordan's King Abdullah II said recently that 1 million Iranians had already entered Iraq to vote in Iraqi elections. When I suggested to a Jordanian official that this figure seemed very exaggerated, he insisted that it was an understatement.

One would think that this Shiite scare would have driven Iraq's Arab neighbors to prod Iraqi Sunnis to take part in elections. If Sunnis joined with secular Shiites and Sunni Kurds in an elected Iraqi parliament, they could prevent any trend toward Shiite religious domination. But a meeting of senior officials from Iraq's neighbors held recently in Amman accomplished little.

Iraq's neighbors seem unwilling or unable to mediate in Iraq.

"All Arab kings are scared of Khomeinism, because it doesn't accept monarchy," suggests Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, an expert on Shiism. Gulf states fear that the Iraqi experience may radicalize their sizable Shiite populations.

Whatever the reason for their fears, the Arab nightmare of Shiite dominance is helping destabilize Iraq.

"Now I can see a new vision in Jordan and in Arab countries," says Faiza al-Araji, an Iraqi engineer whose husband is Jordanian. "They support extremists [inside Iraq] because they are Sunnis."

The vivacious Ms. Araji is a Shiite running in Iraqi elections on a secular party list headed by a Sunni. She is married to a Sunni. Like many Iraqis, she recalls that -- until recently -- most educated Iraqis didn't identify themselves by religion. But this is changing.

"I tell people in Amman," says Ms. Araji, "that Shiites are a majority in Iraq, so why are they angry if Shiites get a majority of votes? They say, 'Nooo, Iraqi leaders must be Sunni.'"

"After the [Iraq] war," she continues, "my Arab neighbor in Amman was kind and said, 'You are fighting occupation.' But now he says, 'You are Shia, and we won't let you take the Iraqi government.' He says, 'You love Iran more than you love Iraq.' I say, 'No, our priority is the unity of Iraq.'"

But in Amman as in Baghdad, the Sunni Arab fear of Shiites threatens to tear that unity apart.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Columnist Steve Chapman will return Friday.

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