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Last Updated: Monday, 22 January 2007, 16:50 GMT
Verbal blows at Shia-Sunni forum
By Magdi Abdelhadi
Arab affairs analyst, BBC World Service

Bullet-proof glass hit by insurgent sniper at a US observation post in Iraq's Anbar province
Sectarian violence in Iraq and Iran's growing influence were key issues
A conference on reconciliation between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam has seen scholars from both sides trading accusations over proselytising and the violence in Iraq.

The three-day meeting, which has just ended in the small Gulf state of Qatar, was dominated by the issues that currently dictate relations between Islam's two main sects - the sectarian violence in Iraq and the growing influence of Iran in the region.

The declared aim of the conference is to narrow the gap between Islam's various sects.

Inevitably, that usually means the Shias and Sunnis, Islam's two main sects that came about as a result of the first civil war in Islamic history about 1,400 years ago.

Organisations from Shia Iran and Sunni Muslim countries that work for a rapprochement between the two communities around the world were invited to Qatar.

But it soon became clear that it was virtually impossible to ignore the carnage in Iraq and sectarian tension elsewhere.

'Strong ties to militias'

The radical Sunni Muslim scholar, Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, rebuked the Iranians for failing to intervene to stop the bloodshed in Iraq.

The underlying assumption is that Iran has strong ties to the Shia militias, which are accused of killing Sunnis in Iraq.

The sectarian strife in Iraq has unleashed atavistic forces that could wreak havoc on the entire region if they were allowed to spill over to neighbouring countries

His Iranian counterpart, Mohammed Ali Taskhiree, accused the Sunnis of treating the Shias as heretics.

Another Sunni delegate said the gap between the two sects could never be bridged as long as the violence in Iraq continued.

The debate is a clear illustration of the dangers of the lethal mix of religion and politics that has played an increasingly prominent role in the region over the past few decades.

The sectarian strife in Iraq has unleashed atavistic forces that could wreak havoc on the entire region if they were allowed to spill over to neighbouring countries.

The scholars at the Doha meeting, for example, debated whether Iranians should venerate the graveyard of the man - Abu Lou'lou' al-Majousi - who killed the second Caliph - Omar Ibn al-Khattab - more than 1,400 years ago.

Equally, al-Qaeda in Iraq has used a language to describe Shias that has not been seen or heard of for centuries.

Sectarian patchwork

The fact is that sectarian and political fault lines in the Muslim and Arab world do not always overlap.

Radical Sunni Muslim scholar Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi (file photo)
Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi rebuked Iran over Iraq
Nothing illustrates this divergence between sect and politics better than what is happening in Iraq and Lebanon, the two countries in the Arab world whose sectarian patchwork threatens to be their potential undoing.

During the Israeli war against Hezbollah last summer, many Sunni Muslims supported the Shia movement in Lebanon, because it was perceived as the standard bearer of Arab nationalism against the US-backed Israeli "aggression".

Israel says it acted in self-defence.

But at the same time, the same Sunni Muslims who applauded Hezbollah were outraged by the hanging of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in late December.

They denounced the Shia-dominated government for being in cahoots with the "occupying" Americans.

Meanwhile, Washington's purported plan to forge a Sunni front to contain the growing influence of Iran's radical politics has sent alarm bells ringing in many Arab states, fearing that Israel will be the greatest beneficiary of such policy.

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