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"Most Americans Don't Have a Clue"

ISIS and Washington’s Ignorance About the Sunni-Shia Divide

by GARY LEUPP

A couple weeks ago Saudi Arabia was warning against U.S. action against ISIL (ISIS, Islamic State) arguing that it would be perceived as a pro-Shiite intervention in a Sunni-Shiite conflict. Saudi Arabia is of course the land where the Prophet Mohammed lived, and the House of Saud sees itself as the guardian of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. It is a bastion of Sunni orthodoxy; the Sharia is rigidly enforced. There are punitive stonings and beheadings. Women must wear the abaya and are forbidden to drive. Saudi Arabia was one of the very few countries that recognized and supported the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In short, it has much in common with ISIL. Much of ISIL’s funding comes from private Saudi sources and “charities.”

But Saudi Arabia also has a longstanding close relationship with U.S. imperialism. It guarantees the supply of cheap oil to world markets in return for generous U.S. military aid. The regime seeks peace with Israel, and has proposed a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine question endorsed by the Arab League. From 1990 to 2003 it hosted U.S. military forces. (This was the factor that caused Osama bin Laden to break with the regime and call for the overthrow of the monarchy.) ISIL’s “Islamic State” despises the Saudi rulers just as bin Laden did. It wants to ultimately conquer the Arabian Peninsula and raise the black flag of the caliphate in Mecca and Medina.

So Riyadh fears ISIL. It has now succumbed to Washington’s pressure and agreed to take part in some sort of alliance to defeat the Islamic State.  But it also fears Iran, a bastion of Shiite orthodoxy with a population three times its size. It has no rational fear of an Iranian attack; Iran indeed has not invaded another country in several hundred years. Iran’s military budget at around $6 billion annually is just 11% of Saudi Arabia’s.  U.S. intelligence has long since concluded that Iran has no nuclear weapons program. But according to some reports, Riyadh would even look the other way if Israel flew over its airspace to bomb Iranian nuclear sites. What Riyadh dreads is the prospect of a Shiite rebellion within the Saudi kingdom, backed by Iran.

Over 10% of  Saudis (perhaps even 18%)  are Shiites. They are concentrated in the Eastern Province, especially in the cities of Al-Qatif and Al-Ahsa on or near the Persian Gulf. This province is the center of Saudi oil production. It could one day become an independent state. It should be obvious why Riyadh is concerned about the possibility that U.S. actions might advance Shiite interests at its expense.

Some necessary historical background: In the seventh century the still young Islamic movement split into two camps, Sunni...

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