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SHIITE EXTREMISM/Arab Gulf states are particularly vulnerable to attack

TWO bombs explode on a busy commercial thoroughfare in the capital of Saudi Arabia. A suicide driver plows into the motorcade of the ruler of Kuwait. Those two events last month underline the fact that Shiite Muslim extremists are demonstrating their wrath in places besides Lebanon, and on targets other than the United States.

The depth and breadth of Islamic fundamentalist anger now affects, in different degrees, virtually every nation in the Middle East. The majority of attacks have been by the more active Shiites, although fanatics from the mainstream Sunni sect have also been responsible for acts of violence.

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The Arab Persian Gulf states, all ruled by Sunnis, have been particularly vulnerable to the Shiite crusade.

After the 1979 Iranian revolution, which inspired Shiite minorities throughout the Gulf, Saudi Arabia was the first site of fundamentalist violence. Several people were killed in two bouts of prolonged rioting in late 1979 and early 1981, both in oil-rich Hasa region where the Shiites have their strongest presence.

More than 80 Shiites were arrested in Bahrain in 1981 for plotting to overthrow the government and install Islamic rule.

Six bombs went off within 90 minutes in Kuwait in 1983, including one at the United States Embassy. The largest exploded at the main oil refinery and water desalination complex in the desert state, which has oil reserves that, according to the current low production levels, will last longer than anywhere else in the world. If the faulty connection between the explosives and the gas cylinders had not diminished the impact, Kuwait could have been immobilized. Twenty-four Shiites, four in absentia, were tried for the most serious attack in Kuwait's modern history.

A series of smaller incidents, many never publicized, are responsible for unprecedented fear in the Gulf and elsewhere over this new trend of violence against Muslim targets.

Kuwait's Emir, Sheikh Jabir Ahmad Jabir Sabah, escaped with only minor injuries last month, mainly because the suicide driver ran into the lead vehicle instead of the Emir's. Two bodyguards and a passer-by were killed. In the recent Saudi bombings, one person was killed and three were injured.

Both recent attacks were claimed by Islamic Jihad (``Islamic Holy War'') in anonymous telephone calls to Western news agencies in Beirut.

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``Our active cells in the Saudi kingdom are carrying out the operations in order to shake up the retrogressive monarchy,'' a caller said.

In each attack over the past six years, the Shiites were Arab, often indigenous but also often including others from neighboring states. So far no Iranian Shiites have been convicted for major incidents. The fact that the movements appear to be home grown has added to fears.

The violence against other Muslim regimes, which in fact began before attacks on the US and other Western nations, is in part the result of Sunni rulers' social neglect and religious scorn for the Shiites.

But it also has roots in historical political and religious differences between Islam's two largest sects.

The Shiite tradition is to defy temporal authority. A religious guide who intervenes between man and God is their ultimate authority. That is why Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini specifically, or the neighborhood mullah (clergyman) generally, can have such power over the individual Shiite.

For the Sunnis, man's relationship to God is direct, without an intermediary. The Sunni clergy does not claim divine inspiration. As a result, secular kings and presidents rule using religious sheikhs as consultants and advisers. Historically this has meant that the Sunnis have not been rebels against the established order.

``Sunni Islam is the doctrine of power and achievement. Shiite Islam is the doctrine of opposition. The starting point of Shiism is defeat,'' explained British author Edward Mortimer in his book ``Space and Power.''

Fundamentalist Shiite opposition to the nature of government in the Gulf states is a favorite theme of Ayatollah Khomeini's. ``Islam does not recognize monarchy and heredity succession,'' he says.

The Shiite in theory has more potential for politicization and mobilization as a result of the clergy's influence. At the same time, however, Shiism also contains a concept known as taqiya. Basically, taqiya amounts to concealment of true beliefs by a minority group in times of danger or when living in a hostile environment.

Taqiya is often cited by Shiites as one of the reasons they were historically viewed as passive. It was practiced by the Shiites in Iran before their doctrine was accepted as the state religion in the 16th century.

Militants in the Gulf and other Middle East states claim taqiya has often protected them until today, when they are beginning to shed their cover and emerge as a major force throughout the region.

Previous articles in the series appeared June 21, 24, and 25. The writer is a former Monitor correspondent based in Beirut. Her book on Shiites, called ``Sacred Rage,'' will be published soon.

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