The botched hanging of Saddam Hussein and two lieutenants in Iraq by its Shiite-led government has helped accelerate Sunni-Shiite sectarianism across an already fragile Middle East, a media report said on Wednesday.
The pan-Muslim unity that surged after the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah Lebanese Shiite militia, is waning, The New York Times reported.
While political analysts and government officials in the region say the spreading Sunni disillusionment with Shiites and their backers in Iran will benefit Sunni-led governments and the United States, they and others worry that the tensions could start to balkanise the region as they have in Iraq itself, the paper reported.
"The reality of the current situation is that we are approaching an open Sunni-Shiite conflict in the region," the Times quoted Emad Gad, a specialist in international relations at the government-financed Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, as saying.
"And Egypt will also be a part of it as a part of the Sunni axis. No one will be able to avoid or escape it."
The paper said this changing dynamic in the region, described by many scholars, analysts and officials in recent days, is a result not only of the hangings, the Iraq war and the Lebanese political struggle.
It has also been encouraged by Sunni-led governments like those in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and some Sunni religious leaders alarmed by the rising influence of Iran, the region's biggest Shiite power.
"Sunni states are using this sectarian card to undercut Iran's influence because they feel that Iran was able to penetrate the Arab world after the fall of Iraq, which was acting as a shield against Iranian influence," Marwan Kabalan, a political science professor at Damascus University, was quoted as saying.
Sunnis make up a vast majority of the Islamic world. Shiites, who lead Iran and the Iraqi government, are the next largest sect.
While the two have "theological differences and similarities" the gathering conflict, the Times says, is being stoked by a determination by Sunni leaders to preserve, or reinvigorate, their waning influence in the region while emboldened Shiites have pressed for more influence.
After the war between Hezbollah and Israel, Shiite leaders seemed to reach their zenith as an antidote to a Sunni Muslim leadership widely viewed as corrupt, impotent and stooges of the West, the quoted analysts as saying.
Fuelled by state controlled media in many Sunni Muslim states, a divide, or at least an estrangement, is growing across the Middle East between Sunni Muslims and Shiites, the Times says, adding that Egyptians, for example, are inundated nearly daily with headlines, commentaries and television reports alleging Shiite transgressions.