Iraqi prime minister assails Israeli attacks

Sunni unease grows as Shiites speak out


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq yesterday forcefully denounced the Israeli attacks on Lebanon, marking a sharp break with President Bush's position and highlighting the growing power of a Shiite Muslim identity across the Middle East.

"The Israeli attacks and airstrikes are completely destroying Lebanon's infrastructure," al-Maliki said at an afternoon news conference inside the fortified Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and the seat of the Iraqi government. "I condemn these aggressions and call on the Arab League foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo to take quick action to stop these aggressions. We call on the world to take quick stands to stop the Israeli aggression."

The U.S. Embassy did not answer a reporter's request for a response.

The comments by al-Maliki, a Shiite Arab whose party has close ties to Iran, were noticeably stronger than those made by Sunni Arab governments in recent days. Those governments have refused to take an unequivocal stand on Lebanon, reflecting their concern about the growing influence of Iran, which has a Shiite majority and has been accused by Israel of providing weapons to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group.

The ambivalence of those governments has angered many Sunni Arabs in those countries, despite the centuries of enmity between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam.

Like many other people around the region, Ahmed Mekky, 40, an Egyptian lawyer and a Sunni Arab, said he supported Hezbollah because it is doing what he said the Arab leadership has been frightened to do for too long - standing up to Israel and the United States.

"We are praying that God would make Hezbollah victorious," Mekky said as he stood beside a newspaper kiosk in downtown Cairo yesterday. "All the Arab governments are asleep."

Perhaps more so than at any time since Iraq's occupation of Kuwait in 1990, the bloodletting between Hezbollah and Israel has highlighted the huge divide among many Arab countries, and between many people and their leaders.

Sunni Arab leaders in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries have complained that since the rise of a Shiite majority governing Iraq, and with Iran pressing ahead with its nuclear program, Tehran stands to emerge as the regional power. Unlike the other countries, Iran has only a tiny minority of Arabs, with Persians making up a slight majority. (Azeris are the second-largest ethnic group there.)

Some Sunni leaders see in Hezbollah a dangerous beachhead for Iranian influence in the region. And they have criticized Hezbollah for staging the raid into Israel and capture of two Israeli soldiers last week that prompted Israel's attack on Lebanon.

The resentment of the Iraqi government toward Israel calls into question one of the rationales among some conservatives for the U.S. invasion of Iraq - that a U.S.-backed democratic state here would inevitably become an ally of Israel and, by doing so, catalyze a change of attitude across the rest of the Arab world.

A growing number of Iraqi officials have stepped forward in recent days to condemn Israel. On Sunday, in a rare show of unity, the 275-member Parliament issued a statement calling the Israeli strikes an act of "criminal aggression." The militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers play a crucial role in the government, said last Friday that Iraqis would not "sit by with folded hands" while the violence in Lebanon raged. Al-Sadr commands a powerful militia, the Mahdi Army.

So far, the most prominent Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has remained silent. But another Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad al-Husseini al-Baghdadi, of Najaf, in an Internet posting yesterday accused the "international arrogant forces, especially America" of igniting conflict between Shiite and Sunni Arabs in Iraq and provoking Israel to attack the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. The ayatollah has relatives in Lebanon.

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