CAIRO, Egypt – Saddam Hussein’s unruly execution, gun battles in Iraq and U.S. airstrikes on Somalia are increasing hostility toward America in the Arab world and deepening the Shiite-Sunni divide.

The conflicts in Iraq and Somalia are not directly connected. But this week’s U.S. strikes in the Horn of Africa country are feeding fears of Sunni Muslim Arabs that their historic dominance of the Middle East is under threat.

In Somalia, the assault is seen as coming from largely Christian Ethiopia, whose troops swept in to topple the hard-line Islamic Sunni group that had seized control of much of the country. In Iraq, the threat comes from Shiites, brought to power by the U.S. invasion and backed by Iran.

The Arab League bitterly warned the U.S. Wednesday against continuing airstrikes in Somalia.

“The American raids against civilians will increase the tension in the region and will lead to grave consequences,” said Arab League Deputy Secretary-General Ahmad Ben Heli.

Ben Heli voiced surprise that the Somali government had welcomed the air strikes targeting al-Qaida militants.

Somalia lies on the outer rim of the Arab world and is not connected to the Sunni-Shiite division in the region. But the conflict there adds to the view among some Sunni Arabs that they are under siege – a fear largely fueled by the war in Iraq. There has long been a sentiment that the Arab world is flanked by three enemies – Christian Ethiopia from the south, Iranian-backed Shiites from the west and Israel in its midst.

The Ethiopian invasion, “backed completely by the United States and Israel, … has led to the occupation of a nation that is a member of the Arab League for more than 30 years, yet no one in the Arab world has moved,” columnist Fahmi Huweidi wrote Wednesday in the Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

“Anything has become permitted as long as the goal is to strike Islamic radicals, even if it leads to the occupation of an Arab nation and the defiling of its political honor, making it a morsel for the Americans, Ethiopians and Israelis,” he said.

The editor in chief of the Islamic Banner, an Egyptian government religious newspaper, went further, calling President Bush “Dracula … thirsty for the blood of Arabs and Muslims.”

“He invaded Afghanistan … then he invaded Iraq. Now I wake up to the news of U.S. forces striking Somalia, killing dozens of Muslims,” Mohammed al-Zarqani wrote. “Will Somalia become another Iraq or Afghanistan? The Dracula of the modern age is determined that it will.”

The 2003 U.S.-led war to topple Saddam’s Sunni-run regime in Iraq has rekindled the centuries-old divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and the suspicions have grown dramatically stronger since Saddam’s Dec. 30 execution.

In Friday prayers in the Qatari capital, influential Sunni cleric Sheik Youssef Qaradawi accused Iraq’s Shiite government of “a genocide” against Sunnis and appealed to the Sunni world to intervene.

In Saudi Arabia, the religious establishment – rooted in the hard-line Wahhabi stream of Sunni Islam – has stepped up its anti-Shiite rhetoric. Last month, about 30 clerics called on Sunnis around the Middle East to support their brethren in Iraq against Shiites and praised the insurgency. Later, Saudi cleric Abdul Rahman al-Barak declared Shiites around the world to be infidels who should be considered worse than Jews or Christians.

Newspapers and television talk shows, especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are filled with anti-Shiite rhetoric. In its latest edition, Egypt’s state-owned Rose El-Youssef weekly carried a cover story on Saddam’s execution with a banner headline: “Raising the ugly face of Shiites, expanding Iranian influence in the region.”

“Saddam’s execution unmasked the Persian hatred against Arabs and revealed the true affiliation of the (Shiite) militia-government in Baghdad,” wrote Ghassan Al-Immam in the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat paper Tuesday.

Montasser el-Zayat, a lawyer and former member of the Egyptian militant group Gamaa Islamiya, warned that the sectarian divisions unleashed in Iraq – by the U.S. invasion, in his view – could spark similar splits in other Arab nations.

“The example set in Iraq will spread into other countries in the region,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press. “We (in Egypt) have Coptic Christians and Nubians, Algerians and Moroccans have Berbers, and Saudi Arabia has Shiites. What will we do with them?”

Last week, el-Zayat held a memorial ceremony for Saddam at Cairo’s Lawyers Syndicate, where several speakers warned of a Shiite-Iranian-American and Israeli conspiracy against Sunnis.

El-Zayat insists Sunnis should rally behind even autocratic governments if necessary to confront the Shiite rise.

“The tyrant who unites the nation and closes its ranks is much better than the weak ruler who is not able to defend the nation,” he wrote in the Qatari Al-Raia newspaper.

Some liberal Arab intellectuals warn against Shiite-phobia.

“It is understandable and even justifiable to fear Iran and its policies … but what is not justified … is the abusive language and racist expressions which are being used against the Iranians,” wrote columnist Hazem Saghiyeh in the Arab daily Al-Hayat.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.