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LONDON — Is the Sunni-Shiite divide in the Middle East now deeper than the antagonism between Israel and the Arabs? You might think so given the response of some Arab governments to Hezbollah’s decision to attack Israel. Even as Israeli bombs fell on Beirut and Tyre, Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most conservative Arab Muslim state of all, openly condemned the actions of the Shiite Hezbollah in instigating conflict with Israel. Never before in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict has a state that considers itself a leader of the Arab Muslim peoples backed Israel so openly.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s breach with Hezbollah is not a one-time occurrence. Egypt and Jordan have also roundly condemned the Shiite militia group and its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, for their adventurism.

What is behind this stunning development? Are we seeing a fundamental shift in relations between Arab nationalism and Islamic sectarianism? Is Saudi Arabia’s Sunni government more concerned and frightened by Shiite Islam than it is committed to Arab unity and the Palestinian cause?

Arab denunciations of Hezbollah suggest that the Muslim sectarian divide, already evident in the daily violence in Iraq, is deepening and intensifying across the Middle East.

U.S. President George W. Bush’s desire to shatter the Arab world’s frozen societies was meant to pit the forces of modernization against the traditional elements in Arab and Islamic societies. Instead, he appears to have unleashed the region’s most atavistic forces. Opening this Pandora’s Box may have ushered in a new and even uglier era of generalized violence, perhaps what can only be called a “Muslim civil war.”

The Shiite-Sunni divide has existed from the dawn of Islam, but the geographical and ethnic isolation of non-Arab Shiite Iran, together with Sunni Arab countries’ dominance of their Shiite minorities, mostly kept this rivalry in the background. These tensions further receded in the tide of the “Islamization” created by the Iranian revolution, for in its wake Arabs’ sectarian identity as Sunni was pushed further into the background as a generalized “Islamic” assertiveness appeared.

That all changed when al-Qaida, a Sunni terrorist force that draws heavily on Saudi Wahabbi ideology and personnel, launched its attacks on America in September 2001. A specifically Sunni brand of militant Islam was now on the march. When the United States initiated wars on both the Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan and the Sunni Iraqi regime, this new radical Sunni strain became even more emboldened.

The region’s newly assertive Sunni Arabs perceive Israel and the West as being only one threat, the other comprising the so-called “Shiite crescent” — the arc of land extending from Lebanon to Iran through Syria and Iraq that is inhabited by the allegedly heretical Shiite. Saudi Arabia’s rulers, as custodians of the Muslim faith’s holiest places in Mecca and Medina, perhaps feel this threat most keenly.

In Sunni eyes, the Shiite not only dominate the oil-rich areas of Iran, Iraq and the eastern region of Saudi Arabia, but are — through the actions of Hezbollah — attempting to usurp the role of “protector” of the central dream of all Arabs, the Palestinian cause. It is because the Saudi royal family derives its legitimacy from a strict form of Sunni Islam and doubts the loyalty of its Shiite population that Saudi Arabia has turned on Hezbollah.

Ironically, it is America, Saudi Arabia’s longtime protector, which made Shiite empowerment possible by overthrowing Saddam Hussein and bringing Shiite parties to power in Iraq. The Bush administration seems to recognize what it has done; as the Shiite arc rises in the east of the Arab Muslim world, the U.S. is attempting to strengthen its protection of the Sunni arc — Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — in the region’s west. Israel, the once implacable enemy of the Arab cause, now seems to be slotted into this defensive structure.

But such a defensive posture is bound to be unstable, due to pan-Arab feelings. Today, ordinary Saudi citizens are glued to Al-Jazeera and other Arab satellite TV networks to follow events in Gaza and south Lebanon. They see Arab (not Shiite) blood being shed, with only Hezbollah fighting back. In their eyes, Hezbollah has become a heroic model of resistance.

This is causing the Saudi state to deepen the Sunni-Shiite schism. Following Riyadh’s official denunciation of Hezbollah, the Saudi state called on its official Wahhabi clerics to issue fatwas condemning Hezbollah as Shiite deviants and heretics. Such condemnations can only sharpen sectarian divisions within Saudi Arabia and the region.

As these antagonisms deepen, will the Sunni regimes come to believe that they need their own Hezbollah to fight in their corner? If that is what they conclude, they need not look far, for many such fighters have already have been trained — by al-Qaida.

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