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Hezbollah, al-Qaida mirror tension between Shiites, Sunnis

Published June 25, 2006

BEIRUT, Lebanon - To the outside world, the two groups appear to have much in common: Devoutly Muslim, fiercely hostile to Israel and the United States, and high on Washington's list of terrorist groups.

Yet al-Qaida in Iraq and Lebanon's Hezbollah are waging a worsening verbal dispute that threatens to burst into confrontation.

First came a fiery diatribe from al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - just a week before he was killed by a U.S. airstrike - accusing Hezbollah of acting as a protective buffer for Israel.

Hezbollah, generally reserved in its comments on internal Islamic issues, began to react: One of its main political figures told the Associated Press it wasn't his group at all but Zarqawi that was the "tool" of the United States and Israel.

The accusations could be seen as little but propaganda. But the animosity runs far deeper than these two radical groups. There is a growing divide in the Middle East between Sunni Muslim extremists, including Zarqawi's group, and Shiite Muslim militants personified by Hezbollah.

Many see the tensions as a dangerous trend that could lead to violent Shiite-Sunni conflict not just in Iraq but around the Persian Gulf.

What's unclear is whether Zarqawi's death could ease the tensions. But the omens are grim: The man who al-Qaida says is Zarqawi's successor has vowed to complete what his predecessor began, including a brutal campaign against Shiites aimed at sparking a civil war in Iraq.

Shiite and Sunni tensions have long existed in the Middle East.

The two branches of Islam live uneasily side by side in some countries, such as Lebanon, or in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Other countries have a majority of one or the other that dominates, such as strongly Sunni Saudi Arabia whose Shiite minority is politically repressed.

Zarqawi brought that to a boil, because of "his personal hatred of Iraq's Shiite population," said Richard Evans, terrorism editor at Jane's Information Group in London.

His goal was to create a Sunni Muslim religious-based government in Iraq, and he believed "that could only be achieved with the defeat of any Shiite-led Iraqi government," Evans said. Thus, he tried to kill Shiites in Iraq, which is now ruled by a Shiite-led government.

Zarqawi also may have worried that Hezbollah was too popular among Arab Sunnis because of its fight against Israel.

In his last audiotape, Zarqawi accused Hezbollah of having "serious ties" with the Jewish state.

"The party has raised false banners regarding the liberation of Palestine, while in fact it stands guard against Sunnis who want to cross the border" into Israel to attack, he said.

Hezbollah publicly has remained quiet on the issue. But its officials, reached by AP, were quick to react.

Hezbollah's political bureau member in charge of international relations, Nawaf al-Mussawi, accused Zarqawi of being a U.S.-Israeli tool against Arab resistance groups.

"His criminal acts are aimed at igniting civil wars and inciting sectarian fighting," Mussawi said. "We will not permit the United States, Israel or its tools to kindle any kind of conflict in Lebanon - between Christians and Muslims or between Shiites and Sunnis."

With Zarqawi gone and despite the vow to carry on his work, Ibrahim Bayram, a Lebanese journalist who follows Hezbollah, said he did not expect the dispute to escalate.

"Hezbollah is very sensitive about getting involved in a sectarian quarrel," said Bayram, who writes for the Lebanese An-Nahar daily. "It's very keen on keeping its image pure where the Sunnis are concerned because of its relations with Sunni groups, like the Palestinian ones."

[Last modified June 25, 2006, 07:52:34]

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