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Most Arabs Quiver at Shiites, but Not Kuwaitis

When Sayed Husain al-Qallaf strode into Kuwait's National Assembly to take up his elected seat not long ago, activity ceased.

Other deputies sized up his brown robes and turban - denoting a Shiite Muslim cleric trained in Iran - then went back to work.

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Elsewhere in the Persian Gulf, any rise of Shiite power is feared by majority Sunni Muslims who - like most Western countries - see Shiites as pro-Iran and bent on creating Islamic states.

But in Kuwait, which boasts one of the region's most open and relatively democratic societies, Shiite leaders have been co-opted into the political system.

Kuwait's example may prove a useful model for other Gulf states - especially in this oil-rich region, where internal threats can take on global significance.

The split between Sunnis and Shiites is as old as Islam itself. But the divide sharpened after Iran's 1979 revolution, when the late Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeni ousted a pro-West monarchy and vowed to "export" the revolution.

Since then, other Gulf rulers have remained anxious about their own Shiites.

But Kuwaiti Shiites - who deny any political connection to Iran - have proved loyal. In October voting, the Islamist opposition won nearly 40 percent of parliament seats. (Only 15 percent of Kuwaitis - and no women - can vote.)

"The fears that were in the minds of some vanished when I started to work," says the bearded Sheikh Qallaf.

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Like many Shiite politicians, he is a member of the opposition. Shiites comprise 30 percent of Kuwaitis.

Some other Shiite politicians are wealthy supporters of Kuwait's ruling al-Sabah family.

Kuwait stands in contrast to Bahrain, where a Shiite majority with few political rights has turned to violence against the government.

In Saudi Arabia, a key US ally, some Shiites agitate against the leadership and may have aided in the June 19 Khobar bombing that killed 19 Americans. Both states accuse Iran of influencing their Shiites.

But in Kuwait, "The royal family has been very smart," says one professional. "The Shiites have businesses and influence.... We have money, so everybody is happy."

But there is a risk that such openness could undermine the regime. Kuwait is vulnerable because it is sandwiched between strongly religious Iran and Saudi Arabia, with belligerent Iraq to the north.

Nearby Bahrain has accused a group it calls Kuwait-Hizbullah, named after Iran-backed guerrillas in Lebanon, of sending weapons to Shiites in Bahrain.

But Shiite leaders and analysts deny that Kuwait-Hizbullah formally exists. They say the reports are only meant to raise public fear by linking them to Iran.

"This is a very open society, uniquely open, and well-policed so it is hard to hide things," confirms a Western diplomat. "It's not the kind of place where bombmakers are working in basements."

Still, isolated incidents have some Sunnis worried. Last December, bullets were reportedly fired at shops with Christmas trees. Islamist deputies want to ban concerts and fashion shows.

But political acceptance of the Shiites is due to many factors, Kuwaitis say:

* Shiites were implicated in the 1985 attempt on the emir's life, but prominent Shiites rallied around the ruling family.

* Kuwaiti guilt for supporting Iraq - though Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was clearly the aggressor - in the 1980s during its war against Iran.

* Shiite leaders pushed hard to reinstate Kuwait's parliament, which was dissolved in 1976 and 1986, affirming their loyalty to a democratic Kuwait.

(It was after urging by the US - which led the 1990-91 coalition that dislodged Iraqi occupiers - that the parliament was reinstated.)

The final turning point was the fighting mettle the Shiite displayed in resisting the 1990 Iraqi invasion. Forgotten was the memory of the 1921 Battle of Jahra, when the Shiites refused to fight with Sunni Kuwaitis against Ibn Saud because they were "Iranian."

One Sunni Muslim professor notes Iran's influence may also grow in the future with the Shiites: "We think in terms of weeks and months; they think in terms of years and years," he says.

"In 10 years it could be a problem, but it depends on the behavior of Iran.

"Just as communist parties were important in the cold war, and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, so too the Shiites depend upon Iran."

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