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Shiites Rising: Islam's minority reaches new prominence

Shiite Muslims are leading an 'axis of resistance' that unnerves Sunnis and challenges the US and Israel. Part 1 of two

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"Divine victory." That's how Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah portrayed the 34-day war last summer when a few thousand Hizbullah soldiers fought Israel's vaunted military to a standstill.

Lebanon's most renowned Shiite cleric stood before a sea of yellow Hizbullah flags on Sept. 22, 2006, in a rare moment of triumph for a Shiite leader; and it reverberated throughout the Middle East.

For more than 1,300 years, Shiites have been an oppressed Islamic minority. Even today they represent just 10 to 15 percent of the world's Muslims. But Sheikh Nasrallah's clout is part of a broader rise of Shiite power. Iraq and Iran (Shiite-led states) control the world's second- and third-largest oil reserves, respectively. And Shiite leaders - Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iraq's Moqtada al-Sadr, and Nasrallah - are household names with support that crosses national and sectarian lines.

US policies, experts agree, have played a key role in this elevation. Arab Sunni leaders warn of an emerging "Shiite Crescent." But more than political and economic power, they worry about the Shiite world view.

Shiism is suffused with a culture of resistance, an identity that finds spiritual meaning in fighting injustice and through martyrdom. The result is a Shiite-led "axis of resistance" with Iran and Hizbullah at its core, versus a US-led Western alliance that includes Israel.

Is a battle for a "new" Middle East under way? Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seems to think so. Last month, he declared that "great war of wills" is taking place. Iran standing up tothe US and the West has "exploded a bomb in world politics that is a hundred times more powerful than the [atomic] bomb ... exploded in Hiroshima."

Today the Monitor begins a two-part special report on the Shiite ascension - in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon - and its future.

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