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Saddam's Shiite Connection

WHILE Washington sees concession in Iraq's deal with Iran, Baghdad sees a golden opportunity to reshape Middle Eastern politics. America's rapprochement with Syria provides Iraq such a chance. It will further provide Iraq with a method of legitimizing its control of Kuwait, undermining the Saudi regime, and escalating the violence and suffering of war-torn Lebanon.

The key to all of this is the power of the Dawa Party.

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Al-Dawa Al-Islamia (The Islamic Call) is a transnational coalition of fundamentalist Shiite groups in Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Lebanon. The spiritual leader of this party is Sheikh Muhammad Fadlallah, the mastermind of religiously inspired anti-Americanism in Lebanon, including the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut.

The Dawa started in Iraq, however, where Shiites are in the majority. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, the movement's headquarters moved to Tehran.

Kuwait's Dawa struggle erupted with a series of bombings in Kuwait City in 1983, in response both to repression from the royal Sabah family and to Kuwait's pro-American, anti-Shiite stance. Twenty-five Dawa members were charged. In spite of threats from Tehran, the Kuwaiti government executed six and sentenced the rest to life imprisonment.

At the trial, all of the members shouted their allegiance to Dawa. Kuwaiti Dawa followers, estimated to be over 10,000, have considerable political power. In Kuwait's 1981 National Assembly elections, they won eight seats despite government fraud. In 1985, under similar conditions, they won 12 seats.

Saddam Hussein's latest concessions to Iran are essentially concessions to Dawa to stabilize his position at home and destabilize his neighbors, who also host sizable Dawa populations. To accommodate Dawa, Saddam might share power with the Shiites inside his own country. One potential area that he might yield to them is newly annexed Kuwait in return for Dawa backing in Lebanon, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.

Saddam is in essence moving in this direction. For instance, when he wanted to address the Islamic world from Jordan last week, he appealed to Islamic fundamentalists by sending his minister for religious affairs instead of his Christian foreign minister, Tariq Aziz.

Saddam can also utilize the Dawa elements in Syria. The bitter struggle between Dawa and Assad's regime goes back to 1982 and the Hamma massacre, when Assad sent 12,000 soldiers on a house-to-house search for Dawa members. Resistance led to violence. The town was leveled as 30,000 men, women, and children were killed.

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In Saudi Arabia, the Iraq-Iran-Dawa alliance is even more threatening. ``There are plenty of Dawa members in Saudi Arabia,'' Dr. Abu Asseal, Dawa's chief representative in Syria, has said. According to recent reports from Saudi Arabia, the power of Dawa there is increasing.

The presence of United States troops has inflamed the situation, bridging traditional sectarian differences of various religious groups inside Saudi Arabia. The situation was inflamed when CBS news clips showing women scantily clad by Saudi standards entertaining the whooping troops made their way into Saudi homes by way of videocassettes.

To traditional Saudis, this was an orgy and a deliberate offense to public decency. Imagine a strip show opening at Oral Roberts University and you will have an idea of the outrage. Such incidents could well inspire religiously minded Saudis to work with the Dawa.

If Saddam can get the full backing of Dawa, his bargaining power will increase immensely. He could incite Hezbullah, the Lebanese Dawa, to war against the Syrian army in Lebanon. That would force Assad to remove his troops from Saudi Arabia.

A critical complication is Saddam's support of the Christian Gen. Michel Aoun, who sees himself as the only legal authority in Lebanon and who is Syria's prime opponent. Now that Syria has a new and unusual ally in the US, Saddam can tell the Arab world that America now supports two occupying armies in Lebanon, Israel in the south, and Syria throughout. That support on the one hand and US condemnation of Iraq's occupation of Kuwait on the other confirm the Arab view that the US approach to the Middle East is hypocritical.

Realizing this, the people in Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world will have still more reason to side with Saddam. Thus, the stage is set in Lebanon for what Americans call ``terrorism'' and the Iraqi foreign minister calls ``the people fighting in their own way against the American presence in the Gulf.''

Worse, it may even lead to a massacre of hostages in Lebanon, a tragic turn that might divert world attention from Iraq.

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