In the mid-80s, we had only two TV channels in my home: the Israeli station and the Jordanian one.
Every evening at 8 p.m., the whole family sat around the set to watch the 30-minute newscast. After that came the drama series, which no one wanted to miss — this was "Prime Time" TV for people in many parts of the Middle East.
Jordanian TV always started with news of the Royal family. As kids, it was interesting to watch the king, but we were angry if his speeches went on and on; as a result, the evening drama would be cancelled.
Another strong character at the time was Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan. This man was next to his brother King Hussein for more than 30 years, affecting the political show — not just on TV, but in the very realistic difficult Middle East.
I recently had the opportunity to meet the prince personally. He left the government and now runs a center for improving dialogue between people. My meeting with him was due to an exclusive FOX News interview conducted by Reena Ninan, for which I was the producer. During our encounter, we talked with the prince about young people's concerns about the ongoing violence in the region.
The troubles are plain to see: constant friction between Israel and the Arabs. In the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, people are killing each other on daily basis. Most are not dying because of an occupying foreign power, but due to internal fighting between religious groups. The fear is that violence will spill over to other parts of the Middle East.
The tension between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq has largely been a secular fight for political dominance since the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, but one with fundamental religious roots. Under Saddam, the minority Sunni Arab sector in Iraq was in power. His regime was accused of brutal oppression of the majority Shiite sector and rebellious Kurds in the northern Iraq.
In the larger Muslim world, the vast majority is Sunni. However, in Iraq, roughly 20 percent of the population is Sunni, Shiite Muslims make up about 60 percent, and the rest are ethnic Kurds in addition to a small percentage of Christians. So in today's Iraq, where one man has one vote, the Sunnis have fallen to a minority power group. The constitution was written primarily by Shiites and Kurds and most Sunni leaders have rejected the country's newly drafted constitution as a document that gives them too small of a piece of the power sharing deal.
The religious divide goes back centuries. Islam divided into the Sunni and Shiite sectors shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. Sunnis chose Abu Bakr el Cidiek, a respected follower of the prophet Muhammad, to lead what was then an international political as well as spiritual empire. Another small group, which would become the Shiites, believed their leaders should be from the prophet Muhammad's family. They lined up behind the much younger Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law.
The divide led to a seventh-century battle: Sunnis killed Hussein, Ali's son and Muhammad's grandson and his 72 companions on the plains of Karbala, in what is now Iraq. Shiites all around the world mark Hussein's death in emotional annual rituals known as “Ashura.” You may have seen the visuals of men beating themselves to blood with chains and flat edges of swords. The ritual is to signify the suffering and to punish them selves for failing to save Hussein.
Today, it is as if history repeats: the flashpoint that widens the divide and animosity between Shiite and Sunnis in Iraq is the Feb.2006 bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra, south of Baghdad. It sparked ongoing retaliation leading to tens of thousands of deaths according to human rights organizations.
The Iraqi Shiites, many of whose leaders took refuge in neighboring Iran during the Saddam era, have the backing of Tehran today. Some Mideast analysts view the U.S. as an unintentional architect of the alliance.
"Iran got Iraq free of charge on a silver platter,” the Jordanian based political Analyst Labib Kamhawi told FOX News. “It was given to them by the Americans, and whether the Americans knew what they are doing or not is a different story.”
The possibility of growing Iranian influence in Iraq has caused a great deal of concern in dominant Sunni Arab states, fearing ever sectarian tension which has started to spill to their countries.
Sunni leaders fear that Iran will increase its influence in the Middle East as it moves ever closer to nuclear independence. The Iranian influence over Syria will only increase. And, with growing empowerment of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, after last summer's war with Israel, Iran's foothold in Lebanon gains strength as well. Sunni leaders also fear that the majority Shiite population in Iraq could become closely aligned with Iran.
That belief has forced Sunni governments led by Saudi Arabia to take action. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia used the Arab League Summit last March to show that he wants to be in the driver's seat of the Mideast policy — even if that means alienating his ally the United States.
"In Iraq, the bloodshed of the brothers spilled all over in the wake of illegitimate foreign occupation and the abhorrent sectarianism threatens a civil war,” the King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia said in his address to the Summit.
Many political analysts have told me the King's remarks show Saudi Arabia's unhappiness with the outcome of U.S. policy in the region and show that King Abdullah wants to take the helm in leading the Muslim world from Mecca, not Tehran.
Last February, the Saudis brokered a deal between the two rival Palestinian parties, Fatah and Hamas. They are advancing a power-sharing deal between the Lebanese government and the Shiite-led Hezbollah. And at the Arab Summit, they called for a greater role for Sunnis in Iraq's mostly Shiite government. Also, they revived talks on a frozen peace initiative with Israel; this plan was submitted by the Saudis in 2002 and accepted by the Arab countries, but Israel rejected the plan at the time. For Jordan's Prince Hassan, a Sunni Muslim, these measures are not enough. He believes Mecca has to be the address of all Muslims — not just the Saudis.
In our conversation with the prince, he said that when he reflects back on himself, he finds that not everything he did was right — a statement not many long time leaders would make. He said the young generation has to send a different message. “I think the biggest problem is the cross road. Either we move towards pluralism and the recognition of the other or we move to fragmentation, balkanization and the continued blood bath. And as former Iraqi Defense Minister Fouad Alawi said, another 100 years of war,” he told us. “That would be the biggest tragedy of all.”
A tragedy that would affect all people: in Iraq, the Middle East and the whole world.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your article, The Middle East: The Tragedy Of All. It was by far the most informative and enlightening explanation of what the real troubles are in the Middle East. It should be mandatory reading for all members of the House of Representatives and members of the Senate. Thank you, again! — David (New York, NY)
Dear David, Thank you for this encouraging response. It's our duty to keep Americans updated with news and analyses from the Middle East. Please catch us on FOX News Channel with our Middle East correspondents Mike Tobin and Reena Ninan, reporting from the epicenter of news. I produce their reports.
You wrote: "Iran got Iraq free of charge on a silver platter,” the Jordanian based political Analyst Labib Kamhawi told FOX News. “It was given to them by the Americans, and whether the Americans knew what they are doing or not is a different story.”
This is why I opposed the war from day one. The obvious outcome to anyone familiar with the Middle East was a victory for Shiite extremists. Did the Bush administration know what they were doing? Obviously not!
Note that last week, the Middle East North Africa Financial Network reported Iraq as paying Iran $64 million for refinery equipment. This is $64 million the Iranians now have to invest in their nuclear weapons research, or to spend in support of terrorism. Did any of this money come from US supplied funds? Does anyone care? — Michael
Dear Michael, The FOX News team in the Middle East is covering the events as they occur and reflecting the true story from the eyes of all sides. Thanks for reading and many other reports are coming up on FOX News Channel.
Ibrahim Hazboun is a FOX News Middle East Producer.