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The assumption that there will be no American victory in Iraq is growing stronger. On the other hand, a Shi'ite victory over the Sunnis seems likely. If there is such a victory, it will have a profound effect on the region, Israel included.

It is important to understand that there is another war going on in Iraq - a civil war between the Shi'ites and the Sunnis, who have been in power for hundreds of years. Of late, a crushing Shi'ite victory looks imminent. A respected Middle East expert, Fouad Ajami, a Shi'ite of Lebanese origin, described the situation well in his articles in The Wall Street Journal and The New Republic after returning from Iraq.

The turning point in the fighting took place over a year ago after the Sunnis attacked the great mosque in Samara, killing hundreds of worshippers. In the wake of the attack, the battle in Iraq increased in scope and brutality, and the Shi'ites mobilized all their forces. Thousands of men came from the marshlands where Saddam massacred Shi'ites in the past, some of them joining Shi'ite militias such as the one headed by Muqtada al-Sadr.

The outcome has been a gradual Shi'ite takeover of the capital. The Sunni neighborhoods lie mostly in ruins, and only 15 percent of the Baghdad population is Sunni. Iraqi Sunnis are streaming into Jordan, which has created a problem there. According to estimates, 1.7 million Iraqi refugees have abandoned their property in Baghdad and other cities. Many were driven out of their homes in ethnic cleansing campaigns.

Some Sunnis are calling themselves the "Palestinians of Iraq" after losing their country and being abandoned to their fate by the Arab countries, in the same way the Palestinians were cast off.

In their despair, the Sunnis have allowed Al-Qaida to operate in Iraq, which has only increased the level of violence. Chlorine bombs are being lobbed at civilian populations, mosques are being blown up, and thousands of innocent citizens are being indiscriminately killed. In Iraq today, civilians are picked up at random and executed for being Shi'ites or Sunnis, depending on who the kidnappers are.

In the midst of all this, mass graves from the Saddam era are being discovered. Add to this the assassinations in Lebanon and the killings among the Palestinians, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that if Arabs and Muslims can be so cruel to one another, imagine what they are capable of doing to others.

The lesson is not to rely on their promises and to maintain a very wide safety zone for defense purposes. If the Shi'ites strengthen their grip on Iraq, it will be the first time in modern Arab history that a Shi'ite regime rules an Arab country. Victory in Iraq will bring the power that comes with oil resources.

As a result, the Sunni Arab world is worried and nervously readying itself for such a scenario. The danger is that they could push the Shi'ites in Iraq into the arms of Iran. Shi'ite leaders in Iraq told Fouad Ajami that they plan to devote most of their energies to rehabilitating Iraq, and will have no taste for adventures outside the country, like Saddam. In contrast to Saddam, they believe they will be good neighbors. Only time will tell. In any case, a Shi'ite victory is certain to affect the political balance in the Arab world.

A Shi'ite victory will also affect Israel's security. The growing Iranian influence in a Shi'ite-controlled Iraq could be detrimental to Israel, and the same holds true for a Shi'ite Iraqi pact with Hezbollah. Meanwhile, it seems that an American pullout will not end the hostilities in Iraq because the Sunnis are fighting for their lives. If withdrawal is interpreted by the Arabs as a sign of American defeat, we can look forward to a radical Arab shift that will strengthen all the extremists around us.