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Iraqi leader fans nationalist pride to offset Iran's appeal to Shiites. Age-old Arab-Persian tensions undercut Khomeini call to Shiites

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Just outside the sacred tomb of Imam Ali (the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law) in this dusty Shiite holy city, the Iraqi government has erected a mural extending the length of half a city block. It is the Iraqi equivalent of a recruitment poster for the Gulf war. The mural emphasizes centuries-old ethnic tensions and Iraqi Arabs' fears of the often-stronger Iranian Persians. It is a theme President Saddam Hussein has used effectively in preventing his secular nation from being ripped apart from within by dedicated Shiite followers of Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

One end of the mural depicts the modern Iraqi Army in action against Iran's forces at the war front. The other end shows Arabs on horseback repelling invading Persian warriors, presumably in the ancient battle of Qadisiyah.

To Iraqis, including Iraqi Shiites, the mural is a reminder that their forefathers suffered repeatedly under invading foreign armies - particularly Persian armies.

That the work of art should be placed in the Shiite center of Najaf, where Ayatollah Khomeini himself lived and taught in exile for 15 years until the 1970s, is particularly telling. The mural is a vivid example of how President Hussein has managed to undercut Khomeini's efforts to incite Shiite Arabs into mass religious-oriented uprisings. In the process, Hussein has helped build a stronger sense of nationalism and pride among Iraqi Arabs of various religious backgrounds.

``There is no Shia loyalty [to Khomeini] in Iraq,'' says a diplomat flatly. ``They don't like Khomeini.'' Another experienced diplomat adds, ``I don't rate tremendously high a Shia threat.''

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