In a news environment inundated with the war in Iraq, it's easy to glaze over the basics: Who is Shiite, who is Sunni, and what is the difference?

NPR's Mike Shuster has taken that step back for listeners with a week-long package called "The Partisans of Ali."

The series, which ran on "Morning Edition" from Feb. 12 to 16, starts with the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. You'll learn how Muhammad's death sparked the Sunni-Shiite split in Islam, how these two groups interacted through the years, and why Iraq and Iran are now dominated by Shiites, who make up just 10 to 15 percent of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims.

The series is a great example of explanatory journalism. Understanding the two groups is a must for understanding today's news. And from the feedback Shuster says he has received so far, listeners are grateful for the context.

"I
think we tapped into a kind of thirst in some of our listeners to have
a slightly fuller understanding of what's going on in Iraq," he said.
"It helps them sort through what they're hearing every day."

Shuster, who has been a foreign correspondent for more than 17 years, says he's wanted to do a project like this for a couple of years. He noticed that the coverage on the war seems to lump together Shiite and Sunni militias and organizations.

"It's been muddy and murky and difficult to understand," Shuster told me on the phone Friday. "I don't think, until now, there's been an attempt to fully explain who the [Shiites] were."

Shuster knew for sure there was a need for an explanation when he read a small news item during his most recent stay in Iran. (He's been to the country seven times.) He read that Silvestre Reyes, the newly appointed Democratic chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, incorrectly identified al-Qaida as a Shiite organization.

When a member of Congress appointed to lead a committee on intelligence gets it wrong, Shuster thought others could use a little help as well.

"I figured there must be a great deal of confusion in our country about this," he said.

Friday's installment makes the connection between Islamic history and today's war in Iraq. You'll find that the scholars Shuster talked to pointed out some interesting contradictions in U.S. foreign policy. They also agreed that the U.S. government has ignored the history of the region.

As helpful as Shuster's series may be, it hasn't gone without criticism. The New York Times on Wednesday ran a column pointing to several elements the series lacks. The most compelling? A reason to care.

The Times has a point that the story sometimes reads like a "memorizable fact sheet on Shiism." An audio slideshow explaining the split demonstrates Shuster at his most engaging moments. But the story's fact-heavy nature doesn't outweigh the benefits of listening. When we lack an understanding of the people and places in our news every day, that's reason enough to care.