Reprinted from Consortium News
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then Saudi ambassador to the United States, meeting with President George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas, on Aug. 27, 2002.
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Few Americans seem to comprehend what is unfolding in the Middle East -- with the latest conflict involving Saudi airstrikes against the Houthi rebels who now control Yemen's capital of Sanaa. In this swirl of regional wars, it's often not clear where the U.S. government stands and how American interests are affected.
The reason for the confusion is simple: Many key pundits who get to explain what's going on from the op-ed pages of the major U.S. newspapers and from the TV talk shows prefer that the American people don't fully grasp what's happening. Otherwise, the people might realize the dangers ahead and demand substantial changes in U.S. government policies.
The U.S. news media is loath to note these strange Israeli bedfellows, but there's a twisted logic to the Israeli-Saudi connection. Both Israel and the Saudi bloc have identified Shiite-ruled Iran as their chief regional adversary and thus are supporting proxy wars against perceived Iranian allies in Syria and now Yemen. The Syrian government and the Houthi rebels in Yemen are led by adherents to offshoots of Shiite Islam, so they are the "enemy."
The schism between Sunni and Shiite Islam dates back to 632, to the secession struggle after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The dispute led to the Battle of Karbala where Hussein ibn Ali was captured and beheaded in 680, an event that gave rise to Shiite Islam as a rival to Sunni Islam, which today has both moderate and extremist forms with Saudi Arabia sponsoring the ultra-fundamentalist Wahhabism.
The extremist Wahhabism has inspired some of the most radical Sunni movements, including Al-Qaeda and now the Islamic State, along with their practice of suicide attacks as a form of martyrdom that has become a staple of these groups' anti-Western jihad.
In other words, what has most outraged Americans has been the behavior of these Sunni extremists, from Al-Qaeda's 9/11 attacks to the Islamic State's beheading of helpless hostages and religious minorities in Syria and elsewhere. And, the principal backer of this Sunni extremism has been Saudi Arabia where wealthy prince-playboys buy leniency for their licentious behavior from the religious ulema (or leaders) by financing the extreme Wahhabi teachings. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Secret Saudi Ties to Terrorism."]
Confusing the American People
The West has had grievances with elements of the Shiite world, too, such as the seizure of U.S. Embassy hostages in Iran in 1979 and excessive violence by the Syrian military against opposition forces in 2011. But the most intense American anger has been provoked by the actions of Sunni fundamentalists involving mass murder of innocents.
Yet, over the years, the U.S. government has exploited the general lack of knowledge among Americans about the intricacies of Middle East religions and politics by funneling the anger against one group to rationalize actions against another.
For instance, in 2003, as revenge for the 9/11 slaughter of 3,000 Americans -- carried out primarily by Saudi extremists under the leadership of Saudi Osama bin Laden -- President George W. Bush shielded the Saudis from blame and ordered the invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, a secular Sunni dictator who was a fierce opponent of Al-Qaeda and other religious fanatics.
Ironically, that war put Shiites in power in Baghdad, turned Iraq's Sunnis into a persecuted minority, and created fertile ground for a particularly virulent strain of Al-Qaeda to take root under the leadership of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. That group became "Al-Qaeda in Iraq," later morphing into "the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" and finally into "the Islamic State," with its own twisted branches reaching out across the Middle East and Africa to justify more provocative slaughter of Westerners and "non-believers."
While on the surface, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Persian Gulf states repudiate this violent extremism, some of their oil-rich princes and intelligence services have provided covert support to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to advance the cause of breaking the "Shiite crescent" -- from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut.
In seeking to smash this "Shiite crescent," these Sunni-ruled states have been joined by Israel, which has taken the position that Iran and its Shiite allies are more dangerous than the Sunni extremists, thus transforming Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State into the "lesser evils."
This was the subtext of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to Congress on March 3 -- that the U.S. government should shift its focus from fighting Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to fighting Iran.
One of the hit lines of Netanyahu's speech was when he told a cheering Congress that the United States should not collaborate with Iran just because it was the most effective counterforce to the bloodthirsty ISIS. Or as he put it, "So when it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy."