Because belligerence is spreading from Syria to Lebanon and an influential Muslim cleric in Qatar called on Sunnis to join a holy war against the régime of Bashar al-Assad, the Lebanese parliament decided Friday to postpone elections there until next year, the Associated Press reported.[1]  --  In Iraq, meanwhile, the U.N. said that sectarian violence took more than 1,000 lives (mostly civilian) in May, Reuters said.[2]  --  In an overview, the *New York Times* said that "The Syrian civil war is setting off a contagious sectarian conflict beyond the country’s borders, reigniting long-simmering tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, and, experts fear, shaking the foundations of countries cobbled together after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire."[3]  --  Both Sunnis and Shiites are infusing conflicts with sectarian themes that diabolize the other side, Tim Arango, Anne Barnard, and Duraid Adnan said....


Associated Press
June 1, 2013

Eighteen rockets and mortars rounds from Syria slammed into Lebanon on Saturday, the largest cross-border salvo to hit a Hezbollah stronghold since Syrian rebels threatened to retaliate for the Lebanese militant group's armed support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The rockets targeted the Baalbek region, the latest sign that Syria's civil war is increasingly destabilizing Lebanon.  On Friday, the Lebanese parliament decided to put off general elections, originally scheduled for June, by 17 months, blaming a deteriorating security situation in the country.

In Qatar, an influential Sunni Muslim cleric whose TV show is watched by millions across the region, fanned the sectarian flames ignited by the Syria conflict and urged Sunnis everywhere to join the fight against Assad.

"I call on Muslims everywhere to help their brothers be victorious," Yusuf al-Qaradawi said in his Friday sermon in the Qatari capital of Doha. "If I had the ability I would go and fight with them."

"Everyone who has the ability and has training to kill . . . is required to go," said al-Qaradawi, who is in his 80s.  "We cannot ask our brothers to be killed while we watch."

He denounced Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, as "more infidel than Christians and Jews" and Shiite Muslim Hezbollah as "the party of the devil."

He said there is no more common ground between Shiites and Sunnis, alleging that Shiite Iran -- a longtime Syria ally that has supplied the regime with cash and weapons — is trying to "devour" Sunnis.

The Syrian conflict, now in its third year, has taken on dark sectarian overtones.  It has escalated from a local uprising into a civil war and is not increasingly shifting into a proxy war.

Predominantly Sunni rebels backed by Sunni states Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are fighting against a regime that relies on support from Alawites, Shiites, and Christians at home, and is aided by Iran and Hezbollah.  The Syria conflict is also part of a wider battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional influence.

Sunni fighters from Iraq and Lebanon have crossed into Syria to help those fighting Assad, while Shiites from Iraq have joined the battle on the regime's side.

Sectarian tensions rose sharply when Hezbollah stepped up its involvement in the war in mid-May by joining a regime offensive against the rebel-held Syrian town of Qusair, about 10 kilometers (six miles) from Lebanon.  The town has since become one of the war's major military and political flashpoints, with international concern growing over civilians believed to be trapped there.

On Saturday, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nation's two top officials dealing with human rights and humanitarian issues said they were alarmed by reports that thousands of civilians are trapped in Qusair and that hundreds of wounded people are in urgent need of medical care.

The U.N. officials called for a cease-fire to allow the wounded to be evacuated.  They said more than 10,000 people have fled to two nearby towns and need food, bedding, water, and medical care.

The Red Cross said it has requested access to Qusair and is prepared to enter the city immediately to help the civilians there.

Syria's political opposition cited Hezbollah's role in the war and the dire situation in Qusair as reasons for not attending peace talks with the regime in Geneva, which the U.S. and Russia had hoped could be launched at an international conference this month.

Qusair has also become a rallying cry for rebels demanding Western weapons shipments, with the commander of the main Western-backed rebel group warning this week the town could fall soon if such arms are not delivered.

A regime victory in Qusair would deal a demoralizing blow to the rebels and solidify Assad's control over the central province of Homs, the linchpin linking the capital Damascus with the Alawite strongholds on the Mediterranean cost.

For the rebels, holding the town means protecting their supply line to Lebanon.  Rebels have sent reinforcements to the town to try to stem the regime advances.  Both sides have suffered heavy casualties.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah's role in Syria set off a mounting backlash from the rebels who threatened to target the militia's bases in Lebanon if the militant group does not withdraw its fighters.

Over the past week, Syrian rebels have fired dozens of rockets on Lebanon's northeastern region of Hermel, across the border from Qusair, but Saturday's attack was the first on the Baalbek region, a Hezbollah stronghold.

Sixteen rockets and mortar rounds hit Baalbek early Saturday, igniting fires in fields but causing no casualties.  Lebanese security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the villages of Yanta, Brital, and Saraeen were among the areas struck. Lebanon's National News Agency said two more rockets hit the Baalbek area on Saturday evening.

Also Saturday, gunmen opened fire on a Shiite shrine in the town of Baalbek in an attack that could worsen frictions between Lebanon's Shiites and Sunnis.  The shrine of Sayida Khawla, a great granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, was attacked shortly after midnight, a security official said.

Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries that are easily enflamed.  Lebanon, itself plagued by decades of strife, has been on edge since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, which began as mostly peaceful protests against Assad's regime but later degenerated into all-out civil war.

Some Lebanese Sunnis support the Syrian rebels, while some Shiites back Assad's regime.  In the majority Sunni city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, Sunnis backing the rebels and Alawites supporting Assad have repeatedly fought each other with rockets and grenades.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has firmly linked the militia's fate with that of the Assad regime, but in a speech last week also pledged to keep the fighting out of Lebanon.

Still, a senior Hezbollah commander, Nabil Kaouk, said Saturday that "we will not be silent and will not stand idle" in the wake of Syrian rebel attacks on Hezbollah targets.  He spoke during a memorial service for a slain Hezbollah fighter and his comments were carried on the website of Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar TV.

Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, said he believes Hezbollah has made a strategic decision that the battle is in Syria, not Lebanon.  "If Hezbollah is provoked, I don't expect it to allow itself to fall into the trap" of responding, he said.

At the same time, the al-Qaradawi comments "are pouring fuel on a raging fire," Gerges said.

The cleric is "putting a sectarian stamp on an essentially geostrategic struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran," he said.



By Patrick Markey

June 1, 2013

More than 1,000 people were killed in violence in Iraq in May, making it the deadliest month since the sectarian slaughter of 2006-07, the United Nations said on Saturday, as fears mounted of a return to civil war.

Nearly 2,000 people have been killed in the last two months as al Qaeda and Sunni Islamist insurgents, invigorated by the Sunni-led revolt in Syria and by Sunni discontent at home, seek to revive the kind of all-out inter-communal conflict that killed tens of thousands five years ago.

"That is a sad record," Martin Kobler, the U.N. envoy in Baghdad, said in a statement.  "Iraqi political leaders must act immediately to stop this intolerable bloodshed."

The renewed bloodletting reflects worsening tensions between Iraq's Shi'ite-led government and the Sunni minority, seething with resentment at their treatment since Saddam Hussein was overthrown by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 and later hanged.

Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Saturday met leaders from across Iraq's sectarian divide to try to resolve the crisis. Leaders emerged smiling, but there were only initial talks that did not address fundamental Sunni discontent.

This week multiple bombings battered Shi'ite and Sunni areas of the capital Baghdad, killing nearly 100 people.  Most of the 1,045 people killed in May were civilians, U.N. figures showed.

The U.N. toll is higher than a Reuters estimate of 600 deaths based on police and hospital officials.  Such counts can vary depending on sourcing, while numbers often increase beyond initial estimates as wounded people die.

Al Qaeda's local wing and other Sunni armed groups are now regaining ground lost during their battle with U.S. troops who pulled out in December 2011.

At the height of Iraq's sectarian violence, when Baghdad was carved up between Sunni and Shi'ite gunmen who preyed on rival communities, the monthly death count sometimes topped 3,000.

Government officials say al Qaeda's wing, Islamic State of Iraq, and Naqshbandi rebels linked to ex-officers in Saddam's army, are now trying to provoke a Shi'ite militia reaction.

Security officials believe Shi'ite militias such as the Mehdi Army, Asaib al-Haq, and Kataeb Hizballah have mostly kept out of the fray.  But militia commanders say they are prepared to act.

Iraq's defense ministry on Saturday said it had captured an al Qaeda cell that was preparing to manufacture poison gases to attack Iraqi security forces but also to ship overseas for assaults in Europe and the United States.


Since April, bombings and attacks have targeted Shi'ite and Sunni mosques and neighborhoods in Baghdad and other cities, as well as security forces and even moderate Sunni leaders.

Many Iraqis, especially in Baghdad, fear a return of death squads and revenge killings, with shops closing early and extra security measures in place.

"Shi'ite militant groups have largely stayed out of recent violence.  If they are behind bombings of Sunni mosques, that suggests that they are being drawn into conflict," said Stephen Wicken, at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

"That would set the conditions up for a slide into broader sectarian conflict."

Syria's war, where mostly Sunni rebels are trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad, has further frayed ties between Iraq's Shi'ites and Sunnis.  Iraqi fighters from both sects are crossing the border to fight for opposite sides in Syria.

Iraqi Shi'ite officials fear an Sunni Islamist take-over in Syria if Assad, whose Alawite sect is rooted in Shi'ite Islam, falls.  Such fears reflect a broader regional rivalry between Shi'ite, non-Arab Iran and Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia.

Maliki has often upset his Sunni and ethnic Kurdish partners involved in a delicate power-sharing deal.

Soon after U.S. troops left, Iraqi authorities arrested the bodyguards of Maliki's Sunni vice-president and a year later those of the Sunni finance minister.  The arrests were officially linked to terrorism cases, but they aggravated Sunni fears.

Since December, thousands of Sunnis have protested against the government in Sunni-dominated provinces such as Anbar.

An Iraqi army raid on a Sunni protest camp in the town of Hawija in April reignited violence that killed more than 700 people in that month, by a U.N. count.  That had been the highest monthly toll in almost five years until it was exceeded in May.

(Reporting by Patrick Markey; Editing by Jon Hemming)


Middle East


By Tim Arango, Anne Barnard, and Duraid Adnan

New York Times

June 2, 2013 (posted Jun. 1)

BAGHDAD -- Renewed sectarian killing has brought the highest death toll in Iraq in five years.  Young Iraqi scholars at a Shiite Muslim seminary volunteer to fight Sunnis in Syria.  Far to the west, in Lebanon, clashes have worsened between opposing sects in the northern city of Tripoli.

In Syria itself, “Shiites have become a main target,” said Malek, an opposition activist who did not want his last name published because of safety concerns.  He was visiting Lebanon from a rebel-held Syrian town, Qusayr, where his brother died Tuesday battling Shiite guerrillas from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.  “People lost brothers, sons, and they’re angry,” he said.

The Syrian civil war is setting off a contagious sectarian conflict beyond the country’s borders, reigniting long-simmering tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, and, experts fear, shaking the foundations of countries cobbled together after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

For months, the fighting in Syria has spilled across its borders as rockets landed in neighboring countries or skirmishes crossed into their territories.  But now, the Syrian war, with more than 80,000 dead, is inciting Sunnis and Shiites in other countries to attack one another.

“Nothing has helped make the Sunni-Shia narrative stick on a popular level more than the images of Assad -- with Iranian help -- butchering Sunnis in Syria,” said Trita Parsi, a regional analyst and president of the National Iranian American Council, referring to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.  “Iran and Assad may win the military battle, but only at the expense of cementing decades of ethnic discord.”

The Syrian uprising began as peaceful protests against Mr. Assad and transformed over two years into a bloody battle of attrition.  But the killing is no longer just about supporting or opposing the government, or even about Syria.  Some Shiites are pouring into Syria out of a sense of religious duty.  In Iraq, random attacks on Sunni mosques and neighborhoods that had subsided in recent years have resumed -- a wedding was recently hit -- as Sunni militias fight the army.

With Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey backing the uprising against Mr. Assad, who is supported by Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, sectarian divisions simmering since the American invasion of Iraq are spreading through a region already upended by the Arab uprisings.

The Syrian war fuels, and is fueled by, broader antagonisms that are primarily rooted not in sect but in clashing geopolitical and strategic interests:  the regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran; Iran’s confrontation with the West over its nuclear program; and the alliance between Hezbollah and the secular Syrian government of Mr. Assad against American-backed Israel.

But sectarian feeling has seeped in.  Iraq has been especially vulnerable.  With the Sunni majority in Syria battling to overthrow a government dominated by Mr. Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism, some in Iraq’s Sunni minority grew emboldened by the prospect of overthrowing their own Shiite government.

Today, many Iraqis feel they are on the road back to the dark days of 2006 and ’07, the peak of sectarian militia massacres by Shiites ascendant after years of oppression under Saddam Hussein, and by minority Sunnis disempowered by his fall.

While the 2007 American troop surge helped to limit the bloodshed, random attacks against Shiites never stopped.  What was different was that the Shiites, who finally felt firmly in control of the security forces, stopped retaliating. But that seems to be changing.

Sunni militias have risen up to fight the army, and for the first time in years Sunni mosques and neighborhoods are being regularly targeted.  The first notable attack was in April, at a cafe in the Sunni neighborhood of Amariya; it started late at night as young men played pool, and it left dozens of people dead.  While it is unclear who is responsible for the new violence, many Sunnis blame the government, or Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

In Lebanon, perennial clashes between Alawite and Sunni militias in Tripoli have reached their worst level in years as each side blames the other for carnage in Syria.

In Syria, both the government and its opponents insist that their civil war is not a fight between religious sects.  Rebel leaders say their only aim is to depose a dictator.  Mr. Assad says he is fending off extremist terrorists, and he is careful not to frame the conflict as a fight against the country’s Sunni majority, which he praises for its moderation.

Mr. Assad’s affinity with Hezbollah and Iran is primarily strategic.  Though his Alawite sect, about 12 percent of the population, provides bedrock support, most Alawites are secular.  Syria’s fewer than 200,000 mainstream Shiites are a much smaller minority, less than 1 percent.

Like Iraqis -- who long insisted they were Iraqis first, and blamed outsiders for the rise of sectarian identity, yet descended into bloodletting -- Syrians on both sides fear and disavow the slide into sectarianism.

But in real terms, Shiite Hezbollah and the Sunni-dominated Al Nusra Front, a radical group allied with Al Qaeda, have emerged as two of the strongest militias in the Syrian civil war.

Both sides have also been willing to tap into sectarian alliances and emotions.  With the West hesitant to fully support the opposition, rebels accepted help from Al Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni militant group, and the reliable pipeline of weapons and cash flowing from extremist Sunni donors to jihadists, whose calls for an Islamic state found support among some Syrians influenced by hard-line clerics in Saudi Arabia.

On Friday, an influential Sunni Islamist cleric in Qatar, Sheik Yusef al-Qaradawi, called on Sunnis around the world to go to Syria to fight Hezbollah and Iran, calling them enemies of Islam.

Alawite militias in Syria have been accused of slaughtering Sunni families.  Sunni rebels and gangs have been accused of kidnapping Shiites.  Sunni fighters call Shiites “filth” and “dogs.”  Rebel commanders have begun to refer to Hezbollah, whose name means party of God, as the “party of the devil.”

Government supporters call rebels “rats” and paint them with a broad brush as Bedouins and Wahhabis -- a puritanical strain of Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia.  Fadil Mutar, an Iraqi Shiite, said at the funeral of his son, who was killed in Syria, that he died fighting Wahhabis, “those vile people.”

Rafiq Lotof, a Syrian-American Shiite who left his pizza business in New Jersey to help Syrian officials organize militias known as the National Defense Forces, said recently in Damascus that Shiite religious passions would help the government survive.

“If we start to lose control, you will see thousands of Iranians come to Syria, thousands of Lebanese, from Iraq also,” Mr. Lotof said.  “They are going to fight, they are not going to watch.  That’s part of their religion.”

In Beirut, Lebanon, Kamel Wazne, the founder of the Center for American Strategic Studies, said that fighters are inspired by religious passions rooted in the seventh-century battle in what is now Iraq over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad.

After the bitter defeat of the faction that gave rise to the Shiites, the victors captured the prophet’s granddaughter Zeinab and took her to Damascus, where Shiites believe she is buried beneath the gold-domed shrine of Sayida Zeinab.

Today, Shiite fighters help the Syrian government to hold the area around Sayida Zeinab -- a foothold that helps prevent rebels from fully encircling Mr. Assad’s seat of power in Damascus.

“Damascus did not fall because Sayida Zeinab is there,” Mr. Wazne said.  “They will not allow Zeinab to be captured twice.”

Many devout Shiites have also come to view the Syrian civil war as the fulfillment of a Shiite prophecy that presages the end of time:  a devil-like figure, Sufyani, raises an army in Syria and marches on Iraq to kill Shiites.  Abu Ali, a student in Najaf, Iraq, said that his colleagues believe the leader of Qatar, a chief backer of Syria’s Sunni rebels, is Sufyani.  They are flocking to Syria “to protect Islam,” he said.

Days after pro-government militias killed scores of civilians last month in the Sunni village of Bayda near the Syrian coast, one Sunni resident declared in an interview:  “Starting today, I am sectarian.  I am sectarian!  I don’t want ‘peaceful’ anymore.”  Composing himself, he added, “Sister, forgive me for talking this way.”

--Tim Arango and Duraid Adnan reported from Baghdad, and Anne Barnard from Damascus, Syria, and Beirut, Lebanon. Reporting was contributed by employees of The New York Times from Hilla, Iraq, and Najaf, Iraq, and by Hania Mourtada and Hwaida Saad from Beirut.