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Dunsmore: World Islam

(Host) The resignation of the pope has raised the attention of the mass media on the Roman Catholic Church - for the moment. But it has also prompted commentator and veteran ABC News foreign correspondent Barrie Dunsmore to reflect on just how much more of a factor than Catholicism Islam has become in shaping events of our world.

(Dunsmore) Recently nearly a hundred Shiite Muslims were killed in a bombing attack in Pakistan near the Afghanistan border. This week there's been a new wave of bombings of Shias in Iraq. And in Syria, the civil war continues with 60,000 Syrians now believed killed.

While this is a political struggle between the forty year dictatorship of the Assad family and those who wish to be free of its despotic rule. But, it should be noted that much of this civil war can nowbe directly related to the dispute between Sunni and Shiite Muslims - a conflict that dates from the 7th century over the method by which the prophet Mohammed's successors should be chosen.

There are ethnic, economic and political differences in Syria to be sure. But at this stage of the fighting, it mainly boils down to religion. The Assad's are Alawites, a somewhat mystical 9th century off-shoot of the Shiite sect. They make up only 12% of Syrians. By contrast about 75% of Syrians are Sunnis. There are some religious lines that are blurred. But it's largely sectarian differences between Sunnis and Shiites which now fuel this civil war. And it's a conflict made more complex because Syria's neighbors are directly interfering to protect their stakes in the event the Assad regime ends-or doesn't.

Over the centuries Sunni Muslims became the majority Islamic sect and the most dominant, while the Shiites evolved as the least politically powerful and the poorest. But that dynamic changed with the 1979 Iranian revolution when the Shah was overthrown and replaced by a Shiite theocracy.

When Israel invaded Lebanon in the early 1980's, that gave Iran an excuse to intervene too. In came its Revolutionary Guard which proceeded to organize Lebanese Shiites under the banner of Hezbollah, the Party of God, into a significant political and military force, That's also when Iran and Syria cemented their current three decade alliance.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 it overthrew the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, who was Iran's most significant enemy. Today Shiites control the government of Iraq and Iran enjoys unprecedented influence there.

Many analysts believe Iran's aspirations to become a nuclear power is not to wipe out Israel - which given Israel's own nuclear arsenal would be suicidal for the mullahs of Tehran. In this analysis what Iran really wants is to expand Shiite influence while challengingSunni ruled Saudi Arabia, which as the keeper of Islam's Holy Places is the acknowledged Muslim power in the region.

It's been credibly reported that America's main concern about Iran getting the bomb is that it would prompt the Saudis and perhaps the religious Sunnis of Egypt, to try togo nuclear as well.

That would make the world a far more dangerous place- because both the Sunni's and the Shiites have militant, fundamentalist wings. And these extremists are evidently willing to use any means to return Islam to the glory days - of the Middle Ages.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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