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Updated: April 2, 2011 16:08 IST

Crackdown in Bahrain enflames Iraq's Shiites

AP
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In this photo dated March 25, 2011, women work in a basement workshop in central Baghdad. AP.
In this photo dated March 25, 2011, women work in a basement workshop in central Baghdad. AP.

The fervour is testimony to the solidarity Iraqi Shiites feel with their religious brethren in Bahrain battling for more rights.

The sewing machines have been furiously churning out red and white Bahraini flags at a basement workshop in downtown Baghdad, and Iraqi customers are snapping them up to wave at protests, unfurl from buildings and fly from car antennas.

The fervour is testimony to the solidarity Iraqi Shiites feel with their religious brethren in Bahrain battling for more rights.

It is also a sign of how the crushing of the Bahraini Shiite protests by the island nation’s Sunni monarchy, with the help of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies, hikes up sectarian tensions around the region.

Hundreds of Iraqis have taken to the streets in demonstrations against Bahrain’s ruling elite and Saudi Arabia. Politicians railed against Bahrain in parliament. Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, who’s been largely silent on most of the turmoil in the Middle East, said Bahrain’s actions were threatening to inflame sectarian violence.

The Grand Ayatollah Ali al—Sistani - revered by many Shiites both inside and outside Iraq - has called on the Bahrain government to cease the crackdown.

And the Iraqi government is pushing the United States to get more involved, U.S. ambassador in Baghdad James F. Jeffrey said Friday. High—ranking U.S. diplomats, including Vice President Joe Biden, have urged the tiny kingdom’s rulers to settle the strife without violence.

“We’re concerned, of course, of anything that can trigger any sort of sectarian outbreak or disagreement, discord, diplomatic struggle or even worse throughout the region,” Mr. Jeffrey told reporters. “The Iraqi government would like to see us and others do more to try to resolve the conflict, and we are continuing our contacts in Bahrain toward that end.”

The scenario in Bahrain in many ways mimics Iraq- a Shiite majority long dominated by a Sunni minority regime. For Iraq’s Shiites, it was Saddam Hussein, whose toppling in 2003 helped bring Shiites to dominate power in the country. For Bahrain’s Shiites, it is the Khalifa family that has ruled the island kingdom for more than 200 years and shows no sign of giving it up. Bahraini Shiites have long complained of discrimination and a second—class—citizen status.

“We support Bahrainis because we are of the same sect, because the majority of Bahraini people are Shiite,” said Talib al—Zayadi, owner of the al—Raya store in Baghdad, which makes flags, banners and other paraphernalia. He said business is up almost 20 percent because Iraqis are buying so many Bahraini flags.

The decision by Saudi Arabia to send in troops to quell the protests infuriated Iraq’s Shiite population even more.

Saudi Arabia fears that any rise in power among Shiite communities in the Gulf will lead to a spread in the influence and power of its top rival, mainly Shiite Iran. That worry applies for Bahrain and for Saudi Arabia’s own Shiite population who live in the eastern part of the country, where the oil is.

Saudi leaders hold the same suspicions about Iraq’s empowered Shiite community, and for that reason Riyadh’s relations with the post—Saddam governments in Baghdad have been consistently cold.

To many of Iraq’s Shiites, the fact that the international community intervened on behalf of Libyan rebels but did not interfere when troops from Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries rolled across the causeway connecting the Saudi and Bahraini kingdoms reeks of a double standard.

Iraq’s powerful top four Shiite clerics, known together as the “marjaiyah,” are closely watching all the popular uprisings in the region, said Sheik Ali al—Najafi, the son and top aide to one of the clerics.

“But the Bahraini issue is different because there is Arab and international silence and a media blackout on that issue,” he said.

Mr. Al—Najafi said Iraqi religious leaders aren’t seeking to provoke a sectarian conflict, but he said it is obvious that the Bahraini people are being treated in a sectarian manner.

He said religious leaders in Najaf, where Shiites from around the world study, have been in close contact with their counterparts in Bahrain.

One Bahraini opposition cleric who’s been studying in Iraq said Bahrainis are able to get their message out through Iraq, in part because Iraq has strong relations with the United States. Iraqis also understand the situation in Bahrain because of their own history.

“Iraq has lived through similar circumstances and maybe more harsh than we have lived through in Bahrain,” said the cleric, Maytham Omran.

Woven throughout the narrative of what is happening in Bahrain is the spectre of Iran.

To be sure, images of Iranian leaders grace some Bahraini mosques.

But when it comes to religious connections, most of Bahrain’s Shiites practice a type of Shiism that does not adhere strictly to the guidance of one ayatollah, said Juan Cole, a U.S. expert on Islam. Those who do follow one ayatollah, tend to look to al—Sistani in Najaf for spiritual guidance, Ms. Cole said. Either way, they’re not likely to be taking their guidance from Iran.

Inevitably the sectarian divisions playing out in Bahrain remind many Iraqis of the Sunni—Shiite divisions that only recently were tearing this country apart.

A Sunni lawmaker, Aliya Nusayif, was part of a group of prominent Iraqi political leaders who wrote an open letter to the U.S. Embassy calling on the U.S. government to hold Bahrain accountable. She said she is worried that Iranian and Saudi interference in Bahrain may fuel Sunni—Shiite tensions in Iraq, but that is all the more reason to push for the protesters’ demands in Bahrain to be heard.

“Peoples in all countries have the right to ... ask for change,” she said. “There are massacres being committed on the Bahraini land while the international community is paying no attention to it and directing their concern to Libya only.”

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