Jordan Fears Growing Shiite Influence

The Associated Press
Friday, November 17, 2006; 2:39 PM

BAQAA CAMP, Jordan -- A new wave of admiration for Hezbollah and an influx of thousands of Iraqi Shiite refugees has caused fears this staunch U.S. ally could face growing Shiite _ and perhaps Iranian _ influence.

Sunni Muslim clerics and Jordanian officials have expressed worry that support for Hezbollah _ high since the Shiite group's war with Israel _ could encourage Jordanians, who are overwhelmingly Sunni, to convert to the Shiite branch of Islam.

The officials worry that could boost support for Iran, whose influence is considered a threat to Sunni-dominated governments like Jordan's throughout the Middle East. Such fears have existed in Jordan ever since the war in neighboring Iraq took a sectarian slant, with Sunnis and Shiites engaged in reprisal killings that some say veer toward outright civil war.

In 2004, Jordan's King Abdullah II warned that Iran was seeking to establish "a Shiite crescent" including Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Since the Israeli-Hezbollah fighting in Lebanon, he has noted that many in the Arab world now consider the guerrillas as heroes.

The fears have become more widespread _ and sharper _ in recent months, with the influx of some 800,000 Iraqi refugees since the war began, even though they include a large proportion of Sunnis.

Last month, the government deported some Iraqi Shiites, apparently for practicing self-flagellation rituals at a Shiite shrine outside Amman. Jordan permits Shiites to worship but not to whip themselves and shed blood, as occurs in some ceremonies.

Jordanian authorities have also rejected requests from Iraqi residents to establish a Shiite mosque, according to two security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivities. The officials said Jordanian security suspected the mosque would become a center for spreading Shiite theology.

Since the Israeli-Hezbollah war, newspaper reports have circulated in the Middle East that a growing number of Sunnis have become Shiites as an expression of support for Hezbollah. The reports have been impossible to substantiate, but the worry among security officials and clerics reflects the deep distrust among Sunni leaders over Shiite intentions.

A Sunni researcher in Amman said he believes there have been dozens of Sunni converts to the Shiite sect, but he had no precise figure. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Some Sunni clerics say the lack of evidence could be due to "taqiyya," an Islamic doctrine used by Shiites to conceal their faith when under threat. One Sunni cleric here insisted, without proof, that Iran has a secret plan to use Shiite conversions to infiltrate Arab societies and cause trouble.

He contended that about half the estimated 800,000 Iraqis who had fled their country for Jordan are Shiites and could be used by the Iranians as missionaries. He also spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is so sensitive.

For a Sunni to convert to the Shiite sect is a simple process. A Sunni can start going to a Shiite mosque and adopt the sect's manner of performing Islamic rites. For a more formal conversion, a Sunni can go to a Shiite cleric and declare his belief that the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law Ali is his rightful heir, which Sunnis do not believe.

The number of Iraqi Shiites who have entered Jordan is impossible to verify since Jordanian officials have not said what percentage of the refugees they believe are Sunni or Shiite.

But any influx of Shiites would hugely inflate their presence in Jordan, since Shiites account for less than 1 percent of the country's population of 6 million. More than 90 percent of Jordanians are Sunnis and the rest Christians.

Public support for Hezbollah in Jordan is high, particularly among the estimated 1.8 million Palestinians who live here. They express admiration for Hezbollah because of the group's military successes against Israel at a time when Arab governments show little interest in armed confrontation.

Other Hezbollah admirers insist their support for the Shiite guerrillas would never lead them to abandon their Sunni faith.

"There is growing sympathy toward Hezbollah...We sympathize with whoever fights Israel," said Abdul-Wahab al-Nawayseh, 65, a Jordanian Sunni. "But the issue is political and has no sectarian roots."

Mohammed Shafout, 60, of Baqaa, said Palestinians were yearning for someone to stand up to Israel, but contended Jordanian society was too traditional to become fertile ground for Shiite missionaries.

"Shiism is only in the imagination of some people who want to portray it as an Iranian influence," he said.

© 2006 The Associated Press