CAIRO - Shortly before the American-led invasion of Iraq, Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, warned that the attack would "open the gates of hell." Now, three years later, there is a sense in the Middle East that what was once viewed as quintessential regional hyperbole may instead have been darkly prescient.
Even before the bombing of one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines in Samarra set off sectarian fighting last Wednesday, the chaos in Iraq helped elevate Iran's regional influence — a great concern to many of the Sunni led governments here — while also giving Al Qaeda sympathizers a new a foothold in the region.
Iranian protestors burn a U.S. flag during a protest in Tehran, Iran February 26, 2006. More than 1,200 conservative students angered by the destruction of a Shi'ite Muslim shrine in Iraq hurled petrol bombs, stones and eggs at the British embassy in Tehran on Sunday. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl
But the bombing, and the prospect of a full-blown civil war driven by sectarian divisions, is even more ominous for the Middle East. Nine Middle Eastern countries have sizable populations of Shiites living side by side with Sunnis, and there is concern in many of them that a split in Iraq could lead to divided allegiances and, perhaps, conflict at home.
"The spillover of this is of concern for everybody in the region," said Ali Shukri, a retired Jordanian general who for 23 years served as an adviser to King Hussein. "When you take western Iraq, Anbar Province borders Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia; the southern part of Iraq borders Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran. If there is a conflict, a surge in violence, it becomes contagious in the region."
The rising tensions in Iraq are also happening at a time when two other powerful dynamics are at work: the rise of Islamic political parties, like Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the effort of the Iran's leadership to once again try to spread its ideas around the region. How all these forces combine and ultimately influence each other has become a source of deep worry.
In addition, should fighting increase, local leaders are also bracing for a new influx of refugees and damage to the regional economy. Both factors would have serious consequences for Middle Eastern states that have little or no oil and are already suffering from stagnant economies, including Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Yemen.
The tiny Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan absorbed about a million Iraqis after Saddam Hussein's government fell, and now, faced with serious economic problems, its leaders worry about another flood of refugees rushing across the border. In Saudi Arabia, officials face the dual threat of a restive Shiite population at home and the increased power of the Iraq-based group that calls itself Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which has already stated its desire to take down the Saudi monarchy.
The Qaeda group in Iraq has already claimed responsibility for a triple bombing in Amman last year, and several political analysts said they believed that the attempted suicide bombing of a Saudi oil refinery on Friday had its roots in Iraq.
With Egyptians making up a large portion of the foreign fighters in Iraq, and earlier in Afghanistan, some analysts have asked, "If Al Qaeda aligned forces are successful in breaking apart Iraq, will they try to strike in Egypt?" Many have expressed concerns about the regional economy, and, if nothing else, have noted that increased violence will undermine efforts to lift a region stung by high unemployment and economic stagnation.
"Iraq has been like hell for the last three years," said Hesham Youssef, Mr. Moussa's chief of staff in Cairo. "I think it would surpass any expectation if a civil war erupts. This will go even into a much worse scenario, not only for Iraq, but for the region as well."
The most pressing fear in the region remains that civil war would aggravate the split that tore Islam into two major groups centuries ago, Sunnis and Shiites. While the original division was caused by a dispute over who would take over as leader, or caliph, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Shiites and Sunnis have developed distinctly different social, political and religious practices over the centuries and have often viewed each other with suspicion.
While Sunnis are a majority in the region, there are large Shiite populations in Oman, Bahrain, Lebanon, Yemen, Kuwait, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In some places, Shiites are discriminated against.
But in weighing the regional impact of the Iraq war, and the potential for intra-Muslim conflict, Iran, the only Shiite-led government in the world, clearly looms largest. By many accounts, the shifting dynamics in Iraq have served to strengthen Iran's hand at a time when it is defying Europe and the United States by moving forward with a nuclear program. Iran says it wants to develop nuclear energy; the West says it suspects Iran is trying to build weapons and has had the International Atomic Energy Agency refer Iran's case to the United Nations Security Council.
The Iranian leadership has condemned the blast as the work of the Israelis, the Americans and the British, leveling a charge that aims to rally all Muslims behind it; it has also called for calm in Iraq, thereby winning grudging appreciation of regional leaders, and it still has the chaos in Iraq as a foil to deflect American attention from Iran's own nuclear program, analysts in the region said.
"It is true that the elements involved in the explosion were a couple of misled and radical Sunnis, but everyone knows that these people are the puppets of the occupying forces, who incur heavy costs, design very accurate plans and encourage such weak persons to do whatever they want," read an editorial in the Iranian paper Jomhuri-ye Eslami. "During the past years, these elements have been trained with the budget of America and England in order to have an anti-American face but to be the agents of America. They are in fact the children of the Satan that has occupied Iraq at the moment."
Under almost any chain of events, from the development of a democratically elected government in Iraq to the fracturing of the country into ethic zones, Iran faces the prospect of emerging as a far more influential power regionally in the near future than at anytime since the 1979 revolution, political analysts said.
"There was always a balance between Iraq and Iran," said Abdel Raouf El Reedy, a former ambassador to the United States who now serves as chairman of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, an independent research center in Cairo. "Now, if Iraq disintegrates and there is sectarian division between the Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis, then Iran will become the dominant power in the region."
But it is difficult to determine Iran's immediate intentions in Iraq, whether it is a force for calm, an agitator for destabilization or a bit of both. With the election in June of an ideologically hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran had abandoned any conciliatory approach to the West, moving forward with its nuclear program.
In taking such a confrontational approach, Iran has tried to reach out to the Arab world. By calling for Israel to be wiped off the map and calling the Holocaust a myth, Mr. Ahmadinejad has tried to unite Muslims — Sunni and Shiite — under a pan-Islamic umbrella controlled by Iran.
While that oratory has left Iran more isolated from the West, it has increasingly found a degree of unity and support in the region. The recent outrage over the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, which set off more than a month of protests, also helped unite Muslims in opposition to a common perceived enemy.
That unity, and the prospect of Iran spreading its revolutionary ideas among Sunnis, could be undermined if there is a fevered civil war pitting Iraq's Sunnis against its Shiite majority.
"If it does start to divide them, then everybody will clinch to power like hell and they will be at each other necks like crazy because nobody will want to lose," said Mr. Shukri, the retired Jordanian general.
So far, Iran has stuck to its script and has tried to transform the attack on a Shiite shrine, which it condemned, into another point to rally all Muslims. But there are many people around the region who question Iran's sincerity, and who see in the chaos in Iraq a hand from Tehran.
"I know the Iranian government does not want to have a stable area," said Muhammad al-Zulfa, a member of the Shoura Council of Saudi Arabia, a consultative assembly appointed by the king. "So I'm afraid they want to keep the Americans busy in Iraq or somewhere else, in Syria, or Lebanon. Maybe the Iranian government wants to have a hand in all these areas."
At the moment, if there is any hint of the possibility for direct confrontation between Shiites and Sunnis, it was offered in Lebanon, by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. He blamed America and militant Sunnis, like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, for the chaos in Iraq. He singled out a practice among some extremists known as takfir, in which one Muslim declares another an apostate, and then kills him.
"Let's not blame each other," he said at a rally last week. "We shouldn't give them that opportunity. We should limit the accusations to the American occupation, its agents and the takfiri murderers. Toward those our rage should be directed."
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company