America Must Decide between Shiites and Sunnis

Robin Wright in the Wash Post writes:

The White House and the State Department are still wedded to the isolation of Iran and Syria, despite the growing momentum behind the idea of regional outreach, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

Her article: "U.S. Considers Ending Outreach to Insurgents," chronicals the terrible divisions in the Bush administration over how to move forward in Iraq. Whereas present US policy led by Ambassador Khalilzade in Baghdad is to bolster the Sunnis, some in the State Department have been proposing backing the Shiites and Kurds and jettisoning attempts to bring the recalcitrant Sunnis into a deal.

This is called the "80% Solution," and was proposed by the State Department's counselor Philip D. Zelikow, who resigned two days ago [See our own Charles Coutinho on this at his new blog "Diplomat of the Furture". Nevertheless, Zelikow's ideas have many backers, according to Wright. He proposes the US should abandon efforts to win over Iraq's Sunni population and settle for good ties to Kurds and Shiites. 

"State Department officials argued that intervening in Iraqi politics is increasingly counterproductive, particularly after elections for a permanent government last December. Reconciliation, they also argued, is now exceptionally unlikely and could actually jeopardize U.S. relations with Iraq's Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of the population, according to sources familiar with the debate."

Sunni Arab states are outraged by this line of thinking, which they claim will only cede Iraq to Iran.

Roula Khalaf, writing in the Finacial Times, [Nov 29, 2006] explains

"According to Jordanian officials, the message likely to have been delivered to Mr Bush on Wednesday by King Abdullah was that containing the civil war in Iraq was "not a matter of engaging with Iran and Syria", but rather involved more empowerment of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority that dominates the insurgency.

From the Sunni Arab regimes' perspective, the US invasion of Iraq handed the country to Shia parties allied to Iran, dangerously upsetting the balance of power in the region. Some Arab states – Saudi Arabia in particular – have launched their own dialogue with Tehran. "Saudi Arabia doesn't want to enter into a confrontation with Iran. But the Saudis have made clear that they will not accept that Iraq falls into the hands of the Iranians," says one person close to the Saudi government.

Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi security analyst and government adviser, wrote in the Washington Post on Wednesday that if the US left Iraq "one of the first consequences will be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shia militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis".

Nor are the pro-western Arab states clamouring to rehabilitate Syria. Indeed Saudi Arabia has virtually frozen ties after an August speech by Syria's President Bashar al-Assad ridiculed Arab leaders as "half-men".

Syria's role in Lebanon is the most immediate concern: Riyadh, Cairo and Amman want to shore up the pro-western Siniora government and derail Syrian-backed efforts by Hizbollah to bring the government down.

Here is an extract from Saudi advisor Nawaf Obaid's article:"Saudi Arabia Will Protect Sunnis if the U.S. Leaves," November 29, 2006; Wash Post, A23

Just a few months ago it was unthinkable that President Bush would prematurely withdraw a significant number of American troops from Iraq. But it seems possible today, and therefore the Saudi leadership is preparing to substantially revise its Iraq policy. Options now include providing Sunni military leaders (primarily ex-Baathist members of the former Iraqi officer corps, who make up the backbone of the insurgency) with the same types of assistance — funding, arms and logistical support — that Iran has been giving to Shiite armed groups for years.

Another possibility includes the establishment of new Sunni brigades to combat the Iranian-backed militias. Finally, Abdullah may decide to strangle Iranian funding of the militias through oil policy. If Saudi Arabia boosted production and cut the price of oil in half, the kingdom could still finance its current spending. But it would be devastating to Iran, which is facing economic difficulties even with today's high prices. The result would be to limit Tehran's ability to continue funneling hundreds of millions each year to Shiite militias in Iraq and elsewhere.

Both the Sunni insurgents and the Shiite death squads are to blame for the current bloodshed in Iraq. But while both sides share responsibility, Iraqi Shiites don't run the risk of being exterminated in a civil war, which the Sunnis clearly do. Since approximately 65 percent of Iraq's population is Shiite, the Sunni Arabs, who make up a mere 15 to 20 percent, would have a hard time surviving any full-blown ethnic cleansing campaign.

The Saudis are letting it be known that they will not accept the 80% solution. Neither do they back the Baker-Hamilton plan which recommends pulling American troops back to bases.


Lebanon may look like a side-show to the Iraq dilemma, but it is integral. Riyadh, Cairo and Amman want to shore up the pro-western Siniora government and derail Syrian-backed efforts by Hizbollah to bring the government down. Lahoud, Aoun and Nasrallah are determined to being it down for this reason. Lahoud said yesterday: the government led by Fouad Siniora is a puppet administration controlled by the United States and France. "This government is no longer legal because it is not representative of all the country's religions," Mr Lahoud told The Daily Telegraph. "It must be replaced, but what is holding it together is pressure from the United States and France.

Megan Stack writes in the Los Angeles Times, December 1, 2006, Lebanon builds up security forces, in order to take on Hizbullah. "The move is seen as a bid to counter Iran and ally Hezbollah. Some fear it may lead to a militia — and civil war."

The Lebanese government has nearly doubled the size of its security forces in recent months by adding about 11,000 mostly Sunni Muslim and Christian troops, and has armed them with weapons and vehicles donated by the United Arab Emirates, a Sunni state.

The dramatic increase in Interior Ministry troops, including the creation of a controversial intelligence unit and the expansion of a commando force, is meant to counter the growing influence of Iran and Hezbollah, its Shiite ally in Lebanon, Cabinet minister Ahmed Fatfat said in an interview this week.

The quiet, speedy buildup indicates that Lebanon's anti-Syria ruling majority, led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, has been bracing for armed sectarian conflict since the withdrawal of Syrian forces in the spring of 2005. It also reflects growing tensions across the region between U.S.-allied Sunni Muslims who hold power in most Arab nations and the increasingly influential Shiite-ruled Iran and Hezbollah.

Other than the Lebanese military, there seems to be a general proliferation of militant groups in Lebanon, reading themselves for combat. The main Christian militia of the Civil War, the Lebanese Forces was discovered to be rearming and training over the last week. Several militant Palestinian groups have been in the news recently because of their efforts at strengthening themselves with arms and men. It has been suggested that Syria is aiding this effort. Radical Sunni Lebanese groups have also been arming. (see the comment section two posts ago for coverage of these groups by T_desco and others) With the absence of central state authority, the paralysis of parliament, and the tug of war over the future of Lebanon spilling out onto the streets, Lebanese of every confession are preparing themselves for struggle of a more violent nature.

The US and Saudi Arabia are working together closely to support the Siniora government in Lebanon, which hangs on Sunni Lebanese support. The US has become increasingly dependent on Saudi support over the last several years, which will make it very hard for the US to pursue Zelikow's 80% solution in Iraq or the Baker-Hamilton Plan, even if many want to. There will be great pressure on Washington to fight the Shiite militias in Iraq, which will undermine Maliki's government further and exacerbate the civil war in Iraq.

Today the opposition demonstrations against the Siniora government began without violence.

Comments (17)

Innocent_Criminal said:

I am not sure America has to decide for Sunnis or Shia’a. If played smart you can have allies or at least reach an understanding with both. at the end of the day both parties need to live together. but if they continue with the divide and conquer policy that the British used in the 20th century we will continue to see the region edging toward regional conflict.

December 1st, 2006, 11:39 pm


G said:

No Landis, stop lying to your readers. 9 men from the security of the LBC were training in a shooting range. The Lebanese army commander, hardly from the March 14 coalition, issued a statement clarifying that they were not Lebanese Forces.

9 people with individual automatic weapons hardly qualifies as the Lebanese Forces “rearming.” The bit about the ISF is irresponsible at best. As for the “Palestinian groups” which “it has been suggested” Syria was arming, you fail to mention that this faction, Fateh Intifada, is a purely Syrian proxy. You also fail to mention that two members that were arrested have confessed to have been tasked with assassinations and attacks on the UNIFIL, two explicit Syrian objectives.

Fast and loose with facts as usual.

December 2nd, 2006, 2:02 am


why-discuss said:

It is exactly what is going on. Let us not forget that Saudi Arabia and all sunni countries (Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait but not Syria) have enthousiastically helped and supported Saddam Hussein, the sunni dictator, when he invaded Shia Iran and created the first of a serie of turmoils in the area. This is something Iran can never forget and forgive. Then the sunni block had to face the invasion of Kuwait by their sunni friend, they panicked and called the West for help. By doing so they triggered the start of the West interference in the area that culminated with the disastrous Iraq invasion where their sunni fellows are threatened and weakened. Obviously they despise so much Shia Iran that they had preferred to have christians mercenaries to protect them and went into another disaster for their sunni fellow.

Saudi Arabia (except for islam extremists)is a bourgeois country, their army has fought no war and they know it is usuless despite the huge armement sold to them by the West. They worry that their protector, the US, would turn away from them.
Blinded by their hatred and suspicion of the ‘heretic’ Shia, they have been making mistakes after mistakes. Now they know that Iraq’s solution is in the hand of Iran and they know that either they have to deal with the “heretics” or see their sunnis allies in Iraq loosing power and maybe be massacred.
A similar process is happening in Lebanon. The emergence of Shia Hezbollah legitimaly asking for more power is just another terrifying prospect for the Saudi and obviously uncontenable. The Saudis will have to choose, either their sunnis allies (Hariri & Co) sit with the Shias, burry their hatred and make serious compromises to share power or they risk loosing any of the ‘tiny’ regional power they still have.

December 2nd, 2006, 2:07 am


why-discuss said:

G please show me that.. I want to be convinced:

The Lebanese army commander, hardly from the March 14 coalition, issued a statement clarifying that they were not Lebanese Forces.b

December 2nd, 2006, 2:13 am


Enlightened said:

I dont believe one bit that the LF Forces are arming, and G you are correct.

Something Interesting though, we just had a relative arrive from Lebanon last night, and we asked him about the facts on the ground : his words verbatim

” The sunnis are split 50/50 in defence of the government and the rest sympathise with the opposition, The shiites are split 50/50 as well, some spoke about not wanting to support the demonstrations but communal affiliations forced them, The christians are equally split.”

Sounds interesting, trying to sift through the media information/disinformation and the clutter is getting very confusing. Hoever way you look at it, it is only a matter of time before things get ugly. It will only take one miscalculation, i dont think that the hit on Gemayel was big enough to spark unrest.

The leading personalities Harriri, Siniora, Jumblatt, Aoun, Berri, Nasrallah would all be listless in their beds. I wonder when the hit squads will have the audacity to strike at these characters , its only a matter of time!

Chaos theory should be studied in these times!

December 2nd, 2006, 2:22 am


majedkhaldoun said:

Facts in Iraq:
1) shi-ah are 58% of the population,Sunneh are 42%
2)Iraq is urrounded by Turkey,Syria,Jordan,and SAK
who are Sunneh,and can increase the power of
Sunneh in Iraq
3)She-ah has holy places , in Iraq,that they need to protect,thus they may have to give
concessions,more than Sunneh.
4)police have minor weapons,surely the insurgent
has more power,where as an army (if powerful)
will have tanks,military
planes,helicopter,rockets ,etc.
I believe US must release Tareq Aziz,to give him negotiation power, and also release Sultan Hashem and put him Army Chief,so he will form the Iraqee army again, this certainly mean that the US must think pulling american troops out, so they will not be in danger.

December 2nd, 2006, 3:41 am


Zenobia said:

“Chaos theory should be studied in these times!”

… that’s right.

and, as for the “facts”…. I think no matter the grayness of the details, the point is that shit is potentially (if not inevitably) going to hit the fan soon and those with the weapons are most likely preparing for that.

December 2nd, 2006, 5:51 am


Jeha said:

I disagree with the premise,

it may not even be a choice between Arabs and Farsis; each has their own sphere of influence. The best option would be to encourage open societies/markets to flourish, as in the Emirate’s [relative] example.

However, as you so eloquently point out, the US is choosing one “side” over the other, at this stage. This is an aftershock of its Iraq invasion, and I have a feeling that this madness will take time to play itself out.

December 2nd, 2006, 12:05 pm


t_desco said:

Lebanese billionaire is drawn into BAE arms deal inquiry as ‘second middleman for Saudis’

· Focus on Swiss accounts of Mohammad Safadi
· Politician is not a target of SFO investigation

Another billionaire Saudi middleman was named last night in the Serious Fraud Office’s controversial Saudi arms deal inquiry, according to potential witnesses. The SFO is seeking information about any Swiss bank accounts belonging to Mohammad Safadi, a Lebanese politician who has acted for relatives of Prince Sultan, crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

Mr Safadi would not comment last night at his office in Beirut, where he holds the office of public works minister and also controls the Safadi Group. His property firms have received contracts from the British arms company BAE and have interests in office blocks in London worth £120m.

The SFO inquiry, which began when the Guardian obtained documents in 2003 suggesting BAE was running a £60m slush fund to bribe Saudi generals, has expanded to cover secret BAE payments in half a dozen countries, alleged to total more than £1bn.

One potential witness who has been interviewed by the SFO told the Guardian: “I was asked by them about Mr Safadi’s role. I told them that his UK firm, Jones Consultants, had paid bills for Prince Turki bin Nasser, head of the Saudi air force.” …
The Guardian

December 2nd, 2006, 1:28 pm


ghassan said:

I doubt the accuracy of the comment by one of the readers that the Sunnis are just 50/50 supporting Seniora. I am from Beirut. Seniora are supported by about 90% of Sunni. The 10% are: Ahbash who almost disappeared, followers of Usama Saed (Sidon) who are in reality just against Hariri but not supporters of Hibz-Iran, followers of Murad (Biqaa) who couldn’t get 2 buses to go to the opposition demonstration yesterday, and finally Karameh (Tripoli) who is trying lately to stay out of the argument!
The Christians are divided among themselves but are almost united in supporting Seniora! Franjieh could not gather few buses to go to Beirut yesterday and Aoun is losing fast his own followers. So far, the Tayyar has lost student government elections at the universities, several of his followers declared that they split from the Tayyar, and even some of his Parliamant bloc Members make it clear that they don’t agree with him!

December 2nd, 2006, 1:49 pm


t_desco said:

Nicholas Blanford calling the protesters a “mob” (while famously describing the March 14 crowd as “telegenic”).

I had thought that the obvious bias in Blanford’s book was due to intellectual laziness, but perhaps I was too kind…

December 2nd, 2006, 3:02 pm


Joshua said:

T_DESCO, I just received this note from Nick Blanford in reply to your comment, which I sent him!!

That’s the pitfall of doing times online interviews where you explain over the phone a situation to London. It is hard to convey the real complexities here and often the choice of words that gets put together and posted on the website is not an exact reflection of what one said. Still, you can’t write about this stuff without pissing off some people on both sides of the debate. I have had pro-Hariri people grumbling why I wrote about Hariri’s corruption in my book and made him come across as naive. By the way, I never called the March 14 crowd “telegenic”. I’m not that crass. That was edited into the article after I filed the copy.

Spent the day today chatting to the folks on the streets in downtown Beirut. Funny talking to the Aounists who said they were used to these scenes having attended the independence intifada last year. Now they are tent-by-tent with the pro-Syrian crowd. Strange times we are living in.
best, Nick

December 2nd, 2006, 5:20 pm


Atassi said:

The serial killer on the Lebanese soil MUST be found, arrested a prosecuted with the help of internal court. This fact is a given, you can’t strike a plea-bargain with a determined serial killerThis elusive serial killer is arm and dangerous, has unlimited resources stolen form poor, broken, oppressed and inner-colonized country by a sect-clan.
Lebanon should not be allowed to fail and defeated by this last wave of Shiites attack via by the paid agents of Iran, Being a Shiites or Sunnis is not an identity, and will not get you a Passport or nationality. Being a good Syrian, Lebanese or Iranian may get you somewhere to start the catch up game with the civilized world..

December 2nd, 2006, 8:20 pm


Enlightened said:


Thanks for clarifying, my information is rom a relative that has just come back, and we are halfway across the world in austrlia, and listening to the different sattelite news whether pro or anti government it is hard to disseminate information or verify its accuracy.

Zenobia is right no matter the greyness , if a compromise is not reached ( proverbially the shit will hit the fan ) , but i think this will only happen if one of the big wigs is gunned down.

The only way forward i think is for Hezbollah to have more of a claim in the running of the state will be a harbinger or poison pill! ( ie have more seats but your arms must go ). Whether they accept this compromise is another matter.

December 2nd, 2006, 11:55 pm


why-discuss said:

Nick Blanford is trying to sound impartial, but the slip of the tongue ( calling Hezbollah a mob) and his schematic explanation of the catalyst is shameful.
“The catalyst for the protest is the UN tribunal aimed at finding the killers of Hariri. The Lebanese government has recently approved the establishment of such a tribunal, consisting of both Lebanese as well as international judges.

First the tribunal is not ‘at finding’ the killers but at judging them, the investigation UN group under Brammertz have yet to give the names of the suspects and this is been constantly postponed by Brammertz as he obviously has not yet found the suspects. Secondly Nick Blanford should explain the facts:
The present anti-syrian governement elected by a syrian-dictated election law have bypassed the consensus of the governement, used the absence of the Chief of parlement, ignored the objections of the President and approved the final draft of the establishement of the International tribunal. They hope that this tribunal, after the investigations report is produced, will pindown all the crimes on Syria and therefore weakened Syria and weaken and possibly eradicate their allies in Lebanon.
The opposition have repeatedly said they supported the international tribunal but that the priorities should be first: To have a more representative governement, then modify the syrian-dictated election law into a lebanese law, make a new election, choose a new president election and then deal with the Hariri murders. They suspect that the present governement they consider illegal, is trying to trick the lebanese in making them believe that the international tribunal will solve all their problems. We know it will solve nothing soon as it may last two or three years to produce results and in the meantime Lebanon will remain in the mess it is now..
This is the reality but the US influenced media want so much Syria and Iran to be the scapegoats for the US debacle in Iraq that they will use anything to hammer that Syria and Iran are behind the mess in the region.

December 3rd, 2006, 12:06 am


ivanka said:

The main reason America is failing in our region is that they came in and continue to come in with incredibly stupid ideas. This is because they do not know the middle east well. Not even their best middle east experts know things nearly well enough. This article proves this again. You can not choose between Sunnis and Shias, that is a physically impossible thing. You can start civil wars this way however.

When you think how the Russian and Chinese have hundreds of people who speak perfect Arabic and live in Arab countries you just know the US will lose to them.

Currently, Al Azhar university, the highest Sunni fikh (I hope Josh knows the word) authority in the world, has it’s walls covered with pictures of Hassan Nasralla. What does this mean?

The fact that Iran is Shia is by far not the most important reason why KSA backed Saddam. They didn’t want Iran’s influence within their own population. Later on, KSA sent their army to fight Saddam in 1991. They didn’t want Saddam’s influence either. Also the west was with Saddam and it is a constant of Saudi foreign policy : be with the west.

How sectarianism works : Religions do not hate each other in the middle east. Naturally they do not fight, but they can very easily be turned against each other. Political parties use this fact. They are equally as skilled with the “we are all brothers” song. Good luck.

December 3rd, 2006, 10:23 pm


Leaflesseve said:

Ghassan is 100% correct

October 23rd, 2007, 8:14 am


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