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When the movement's leaders claimed credit for two audacious prison breaks outside Baghdad, they declared that ''months of preparation and planning'' had culminated in these blows against a ''Safavid government''.

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The Shiites may now be the majority although there has been no census in Lebanon since the 1930s and they have responded by building Hezbollah into the country's most powerful military force.

Dr Assad's regime is dominated by members of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Iran and Hezbollah, desperate not to lose their ally, are doing their utmost to keep Dr Assad in power.

In most countries, the struggle between the two sects is not fought with guns and bombs, but the religious fissures criss crossing the region are probably wider than at any time since World War I, when the Ottoman Empire's demise led to the birth of modern states.

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Then there are the contested countries: Lebanon, Bahrain and most tragically of all Syria.

Why is this happening? Partly, it is explained by the ''new regional Cold War'' dividing the Middle East, to use the phrase of Toby Dodge, a reader in international relations at the London School of Economics.

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In this overarching struggle, Iran and Saudi Arabia are the key antagonists: the former representing the civilisation of Shiite Persia, the latter guarding the Sunni Arab heartland and Islam's holiest places. Both use the language of sectarian loyalty to rally supporters and demonise foes.

Across the Middle East, tensions between Sunni and Shiite are steadily being inflamed.

In Bahrain, a Shiite majority population lives resentfully under a Sunni monarchy; their fury spills onto the streets in the form of protests almost every week.

''massacres to kill Sunnis''.

Most powers in the region have lined up behind Iran or Saudi Arabia. In 1980, Iraq tried to strangle Iran's Islamic revolution at birth by invading the country, with the support of the Gulf Arab monarchies and the US.

If the Safavids could return, they would find the divides in their region strangely familiar.

Meanwhile, the rebels draw support from the 70 per cent of Syrians who are Sunni. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are duly arming them, with Jordan providing supply lines. Iraq has lined up behind Iran, allowing weapons to cross its territory to reach Dr Assad. If he goes, after all, his successor would almost certainly be Sunni.

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Most of the rest of the region falls naturally into the Sunni Arab camp led by Saudi Arabia. Qatar has tweaked the tail of its Saudi neighbour by pursuing a foreign policy that showed greater support for the Muslim Brotherhood Sunnis who are not to Saudi Arabia's taste and by financing the journalism of al Jazeera's television network, but in the final analysis it remains a loyal Sunni monarchy.

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The Safavids have not been in government for a while almost 300 years, in fact. They formed a Persian dynasty that dominated Iran and its empire, including a big slice of present day Iraq, from the 16th to 18th centuries. Under their founder, Shah Ismail I, the Safavids made Shiite Islam the state religion in Iran, while imposing their faith on peoples living between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

by the French during colonial times excludes the Shiites from the most powerful positions, reserving the presidency for a Christian and the prime ministership for a Sunni.

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In Lebanon, a system of confessional politics devised Puma Velvet Creepers By Rihanna

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a beleaguered Sunni minority.

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´╗┐Middle East 'Cold War' a clash between two sects

Iraqis will grasp the analogy: al Qaeda's Sunni zealots believe that the Shiite politicians who dominate Baghdad today are heirs to foreign invaders. Once, the violence in Iraq was directed towards the Anglo American occupiers. Today, the killing has become a struggle between a Shiite majority that holds power and Puma X Graphersrock Disc

No one was particularly surprised when Yusuf al Qaradawi, a leading Sunni preacher based in Qatar, claimed last month that Shiites in general and Iran in particular were plotting Puma Gold Toe Platform

The bloodiest battlefield in the regional Cold War is, of course, Syria. With every passing month, the revolt against Syrian President Bashar al Assad's autocracy has become a theatre of sectarian struggle.

With his own Sunni minority close to open revolt, the last thing that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki needs is a government of their co religionists next door.

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No Iraqi would have missed the historical allusion in al Puma Platform Navy Qaeda's triumphant announcement on Tuesday.

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Today, Iraq has passed from being Tehran's leading foe to its principal ally, thanks to the empowerment of Shiites since Saddam Hussein's overthrow.

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