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ICC Note: this article doesn’t have much to do with persecution but everything to do with the situation on the ground for Christians in the Middle East . They are caught in the middle of a boiling cauldron.

The thirty years’ war brewing in the Middle East

From the Sunday Times Online. Americans, by and large, are unfamiliar with much of history. Their passion is the future, not the past; and their focus is understandably on their own vast and varied continent, not on the minute details of distant foreign lands.
The new chairman of the House intelligence committee cannot tell the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite, and his predecessor was not much better. And I’d wager that no one in the US Congress was forced in school, as I sadly was, to study Europe ’s thirty years’ war. But they’d better start, because it may be already upon them. Not in Europe this time, but in the Middle East .

The thirty years’ war in Europe formally broke out in 1618 and didn’t end till 1648. It consumed every major power and its battleground was predominantly the varied and divided melange of states and principalities that make up what is now called Germany . Its deepest dividing lines were religious, or, rather sectarian. Lutherans battled Catholics, and then Calvinists added to the toxic religious brew.

Major Catholic and Protestant powers intervened to keep the conflict constantly evolving, in ways guaranteed to confuse every schoolkid trying to figure it out. I remember a brief couple of days in the third form when I thought I understood it. And then it eluded my grasp again. It all ended with the famous Treaty of Westphalia, which cemented a new power structure in Europe .

This was less than four centuries ago. It occurred at a time of religious ferment, when nation-states were weak and the distant empire, Spain , was slowly declining over the horizon. It centred on a region that had never truly been unified as a state. Its effects were devastating.

Historians now doubt that a third of the German population died, but up to a fifth did — not just from conflict, but from the diseases that spread with armies and disruption. This was the era from which the German folk tales of the Brothers Grimm emerged. Massive depopulation allowed wolves to make a comeback, and they stalked abandoned villages and towns for human prey.

Is this now the future for the Middle East ? Iraq , like 17th-century Germany , has never been a viable independent nation-state. It was always part of various empires, run by Persians or Greeks or Turks — and then the British. It was always divided, even under the Ottomans, into three provinces centred on Baghdad , Mosul and Basra . And it has long been divided ethnically between Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Marsh Arabs and others and on sectarian lines between Sunni and Shi’ite.

To make sectarian tensions even worse, it was also home to sacred Shi’ite sites in regimes long dominated by Sunnis. Churchill once described governing the place as being perched on the edge of an “ungrateful volcano”. Saddam’s brutal rule and his genocidal attacks on the Shi’ites and Kurds only added to the heat of the lava below.

It’s now clear that the US invasion in 2003 took the last lid off the volcanic crater: Saddam Hussein. Worse, America disbanded the only trained force capable of restraining it — the Ba’athist military — and refused to provide enough US troops to maintain order. Al-Qaeda shrewdly saw the potential for chaos and tried desperately to foment a sectarian war.

In retrospect, it is amazing how restrained the Shi’ites were for so long. They had been massacred and brutalised for decades, but, under the guidance of the spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, they did not seek revenge for two years, despite constant attacks from a largely Sunni insurgency. But as the US dithered, as chaos mounted, and as self-defence through sectarian militias became the only way to stay alive, the divisions deepened.

The Sunni attack on the Shi’ite Samarra mosque earlier this year was the tipping point. From then on, a civil war grew and metastasised. And the forces of cohesion collapsed. Sistani is no longer the Shi’ite saviour. The street thug Moqtada al-Sadr is. The divisions are so deep, no national army is now possible, and the logic of sectarian violence and revenge, as in 17th-century Germany , is irresistible.

The pull of external powers is also unstoppable. Shi’ite Iran has long been involved in the Shi’ite sector of Iraq , financing the militias, funding the politicians, co-opting vast areas of the country. And quiet funding for the Sunni resistance has come from Saudi Arabia and Jordan .

And so, just as in the 1620s, the combination of national interest and sectarian vision has begun to create the real possibility of a wider war. The Saudis warned Washington last week that they would begin serious funding of Sunni terrorism if Iraq ’s Shi’ites seemed poised to wipe out Iraq ’s Sunni minority.

If a full-scale Shi’ite-Sunni war breaks out across the Middle East, then Lebanon will also be drawn in, and its fledgling democracy reduced to another war zone. All of this can be financed by oil revenues. You could have the world’s most profitable energy source financing one of the world’s deepest religious divides.

It gets worse. Assume this is the modern Muslim equivalent of the religious wars that beset Europe four centuries ago. Now give those religious fanatics access to chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons. That’s what we now face.

The choice being discussed in Washington is whether America can still construct a viable, national coalition in Iraq and train enough Iraqi soldiers to return the volcano to dormancy. The odds, at this point, are probably remote. We may even end up training the very sectarian death squads we are trying to restrain. And the American people are not willing or able to send the forces necessary to control it themselves. At the end of the First World War, the British had 410,000 troops in Iraq to control a population a fraction of its current size. America has 140,000 and has signaled it is about to remove the rest. This is not a recipe for success. It’s a recipe for catastrophe.

The question, therefore, is simply whether the United States wants to have tens of thousands of young Americans in the midst of such a war, forced to take sides, and every time they do so, making even more enemies across the Muslim world. The answer is almost certainly no.

The war is already under way, and the feckless American president has little chance to arrest or even guide it. We do not know how profound the destruction might get and how far the forces of chaos could spread. One thing we do know: oil prices could experience extreme instability. The world economy could be battered.

Hence the deep gloom in Washington — and the grim decision to make one last, and probably fruitless, attempt to stop it. No one sees a way out — except through. Some argue that maybe the Muslim Arabs, like the Christian Europeans before them, need to witness first-hand the consequences of religious warfare in order to let go of theocracy’s promise and enter the modern secular world. But that is scant comfort in the face of the anarchy and warfare that now seem all but impossible to arrest.

So have a happy Christmas. The new year doesn’t look too promising.