The conflicts and problems between Shiites and Sunnies are so deep, and the history is so long, that one can write volumes on the topic and only scratch the surface. This article is an attempt to give a historical overview of the problem itself, as well as, to discuss the additional complication caused by the United States presence in this region, and their decisions on how to conduct the war. My hope is that the reader would realize that the Sunni Shiite division is not a problem like Catholic Vs Protestant.
Some time about 2000-3000 B.C. a series of tribes of people called Aryans immigrated down the caucuses and poured throughout the world. They divided into three main groups: one group went to northern India and mixed with the local natives of India. The second group went down to Iran (the term Iran means Aryan). The third group went to Europe and mixed in with their local tribes.
The conflict between the Iranian Aryans and the Semitic people of the rest of the Middle East is the root of all these problems. Wars, religions, and invasions have modified the problem throughout history, but the deep divide has never been resolved.
From the beginning of the arrival of Aryans up to 500 B.C., the Semitic tribes were mostly dominant and would keep the Aryans out of their territory. The battlefields were mostly in the area which is now the border between Iran and Iraq. The main Semitic empire was the Assyrian empire and their harsh rule made them very successful. The most famous story left from those times is the story of the captivity of Jews in Mesopotamia under the Assyrians.
2500 years ago things changed, as an Iranian ruler, called Cyrus the Great cut through the Assyrian and Babylon defenses and conquered the entire known world - from Egypt on his left, to India on his right, from Russia at his north and Yemen to his south. He created the world's first super power. He is admired for writing the first bill of rights (currently in the British museum). His grandson Dariush I is credited for creating the first gold coin, first postal system, first intercontinental highway and digging the first route of the Suez Canal. The next 1000 years is mostly known for the wars between Iranians, Greeks and Romans, until the beginning of Islam in 670A.D.
Rise of Islam and division of Shiite and Sunnies:
The rise of Islam was so swift that it is probably considered the biggest aberration in history. Countries conquering each other are common in history, but Islam expanded from Saudi Arabia to China and North Africa, until they were stopped 150 miles from Paris in about fifty years.
They did not just conquer those countries, but changed everyone's religion as well. The cause of this rapid expansion is not the subject of this article, however. In my book, "Sword and Seizure: Muhammad's Epilepsy and Creation of Islam," I have explained some of the causes. What we need to know are a few relatively unknown facts of history.
The first division of Shiites and Sunnis began with Muhammad's death. By the time he was 63, he had conquered most of Arabia and was making preparation for the invasion of other countries. A few days before he died, the disagreement over his succession started.
One group was of the opinion that the leadership should stay in the prophet's family, and since he did not have a son, his cousin and son- in- law, Ali, should be the ruler. Ali had two sons, Hasan and Housein, who were very dear to the prophet. Ali was famous for his battles for Islam, but he was only thirty years old. And in tribal society where elders make the decisions, this did not go over well.
The second group wanted the traditional way in which people would shake hands with an elder who was respected, pious and from an important clan. Muhammad knew problems were coming up and was sad over the division. He chose the second group and asked an elder who was his best friend with the name of Abu Baker to lead the prayers which gave the stamp of approval that the second group needed.
Once the prophet was dead the problems arose. The ones who were supporting Ali were called Shiite (Arabic for follower), and the ones who sided with Abu Baker were called Sunni (Arabic for traditionalist).
In the beginning this division was not too serious, and Ali made peace with Abu Baker, and his successors Omar and Othman. Eventually, and later on in life, he was chosen the leader.
Meanwhile, Islam expanded rapidly, the Persian Empire collapsed, and with that came the treasure and manpower of the strongest country on the planet. Arabs conquered Egypt, North Africa, Northern India and Spain. At this point the Islamic empire was taken over by a tribe who were Muhammad's most bitter enemy but they had converted to Islam. So a rebellion started in the Islamic world which still exists, and that was the rebellion of Shiites. Muhammad's grandson Housein rebelled against these newcomers and was brutally butchered by Sunnis.