Tag Archive | "Sunni"

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Iranian Police Disperse Anti-Saudi Demo

Posted on 04 May 2011 by hashimilion

Iranian police dispersed hundreds of youths Tuesday at an Asian Champions League match between Iranian and Saudi sides protesting Saudi military aid to Bahrain in crushing a pro-democracy movement.

At the match between Iran’s Persepolis and the Saudi team Al-Ittihad, some 300-400 youths dressed in black and carrying Bahraini flags began protesting. They were first rounded up and isolated in a section of the stands before being expelled from the stadium shortly after the second half began.

The protesters, some of whom were arrested, shouted “Death to the Al-Sauds” and “Death to the Al-Khalifas” in reference to the ruling dynasties in Saudi Arabia and its tiny neighbour Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia had already unsuccessfully sought to have the match, won 3-2 by Persepolis, to be played in another country for security reasons.

Iran is a predominantly Shiite Muslim country that repeatedly expressed its solidarity with protesters in Bahrain, a Shiite majority country, as they demanded reforms from the Sunni Muslim dynasty ruling them.

In mid-March, a Saudi-led Gulf military force entered Bahrain at its government’s request. That freed up Bahraini security forces to crush the protest movement.

Manama, for its part, accused Tehran of supporting the demonstrations.

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Warmth is Back in Pakistani-Saudi Relations?

Posted on 26 April 2011 by hashimilion

In normal circumstances, a visit by a Pakistani minister to Riyadh would make no news at all. But these are interesting, although not abnormal, times in Pakistan-Saudi relationship.

There is a consensus among political observers that after the inception of the PPP-led government in 2008, Islamabad’s ties with Riyadh had lost the warmth that had defined their partnership for the past six decades.

But the chill has apparently given way to a thaw, the observers think, and Islamabad now seems to be back on the regional radar — for more than one reasons.

The visit is taking place in the backdrop of the so called ‘Arab spring’ which has almost stalled and appears to be going nowhere. Old regional alignments are being revived and new alignments have been emerging on the wider Middle East chessboard as a new cold war between regional heavyweights gets stickier.

The ongoing popular uprising in a number of countries have all lent a new meaning to the Arab-Iran gulf. And Pakistan’s role in the scenario has come under a renewed focus.

Events over the past few years have only helped reinforce and entrench misgivings within the Arab world about the growing Iranian influence. The departure of Saddam Hussain from Baghdad and the fostering of Maliki government in Iraq, has led many to look at the development from a different perspective- the growing Shia influence in the Arab world.

King Abdullah of Jordan once referred to it as “the expanding Shia crescent” in the region. Arab governments feel apprehensive on that account. And recent events seem to have only reinforced their fears.

In Lebanon the influence of the pro-Iran Hezbollah is ascending — at the expense of the Saudi-backed Hariri. This was regarded by many here as a strategic loss.

Riyadh has also been complaining, for long, of the growing Iranian influence in Hamas-ruled Gaza. And to counter Tehran’s growing clout, Riyadh had little option than supporting the pro-West Abbas set-up in the West Bank. Then the upheaval in Egypt turned out to be the last straw on the back of the proverbial camel. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia supported Hosni Mubarak till the end.

The US failure to support Mubarak, not only soured the political relations between Riyadh and Washington, but also forced the Kingdom to play its cards rather aggressively. There was no room for further complacency — many felt here.

When the uprising began in Bahrain, everyone here in Riyadh realised the stakes were too high. The option of watching things take its own course was definitely not on the table. Riyadh acted and acted swiftly.

WAR OF WORDS

An explosive war of words erupted between Riyadh and Tehran. Events in Bahrain exacerbated tensions between Saudi Arabia, its Arab allies and Iran, dragging relations between them to its ebb in at least a decade and setting the stage for confrontations elsewhere in the region.

The Gulf Cooperation Council, comprising six Arab states around the Gulf, was also dragged into action. The GCC explicitly warned Iran of dire consequences, if it continued endeavouring to make inroads into the Arab world.

Back-channel diplomacy was also used to send the message in rather clear terms to Tehran. Gulf governments were no more ready to give in and vowed doing everything at their disposal to protect their ‘legitimate interests’.

Hands off the Arab world — was the clear message to Iran. And in the meantime, the Arab world also went into full gear to galvanise support and muscle to block Tehran’s inroads, into what is being termed here the ‘Arab territory’ – through the Shia soft belly of the Arab states.

And it is here that Pakistan and Turkey got into the loop too. For after all these are the two strongest countries — as far as muscle is concerned — within the Sunni world.

A stream of events took place in a short span of time. Saudi National Security Council chief Prince Bandar bin Abdul Aziz came over to Islamabad, immediately after the meeting in Kuwait of President Zardari and Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz, the second deputy premier and the long-time interior minister.

And Prince Bandar’s visit was preceded by a visit of the Saudi chief of staff to Pakistan. In the meantime, the Bahraini foreign minister also dashed to Pakistan, despite the ongoing strife in his country.

Something was indeed brewing. Islamabad was again on the radar in Riyadh. Interestingly, the visit of Hina Rabbani Khar to Riyadh was announced after Prince Bandar sent a letter to Prime Minister Gilani — following up on his meetings in Islamabad late last month. In the letter, Prince Bandar reiterated Saudis’ desire to further strengthen relations with Pakistan in all areas of mutual interest.

In the aftermath of Prince Bandar’s regional visit, Riyadh has already signed a security agreement with Malaysia, vowing to enhance the level of security cooperation between the two countries. And after his Beijing trip, Saudi Arabia and China too announced signing an agreement on nuclear cooperation for peaceful purpose.

And Prince Bandar is no ordinary diplomat. He is often regarded as a trouble-shooter for Riyadh. John Hannah, writing in the Foreign Policy magazine, says: ‘Saudi Arabia’s legendary former ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, is once again a major presence on the world stage.’

And his previous visit to Pakistan did not escape world attention and generated considerable interest. In the same story Hannah says: “More interestingly – and undoubtedly more worrisome – at the end of March, in the wake of the Saudi intervention in Bahrain, Bandar was dispatched to Pakistan, China and India to rally support for the kingdom’s hard line approach to the region’s unrest.

“Bandar’s formidable skills in the service of a Saudi Arabia that feels itself increasingly cornered and unable to rely on US protection is a formula for trouble — made even worse when the likes of Pakistan and China are thrown into the mix.

“No one should forget that, in the late 1980s, it was Bandar who secretly brokered the delivery of Chinese medium-range missiles to the kingdom, totally surprising Washington and nearly triggering a major crisis with Israel. The danger today, of course, is that the Saudis feel sufficiently threatened and alone to engage in similar acts of self-help.

“Would they seek to modernise their ballistic missile force? Even worse, would the kingdom go shopping for nuclear weapons or, at a minimum, invite Pakistan to deploy part of its nuclear arsenal in the country?”

As the Middle East convulses and Iran relentlessly inches closer to achieving a nuclear weapons capability, has that time finally arrived? Even short of these extreme scenarios, other troubling possibilities exist. During his trip to Pakistan, Bandar reportedly discussed contingencies under which thousands of additional Pakistani security forces might be dispatched to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to crush the uprising.

So it appears Pakistan is getting sucked into a regional cold war — and Washington may not mind it this time too. When Hina Rabbani Khar lands in Riyadh today, she can expect the red carpet to roll — once again. The talk of chill seems a distant story.

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Is The Tide Turning Against Arab Freedom?

Posted on 22 April 2011 by hashimilion

Is a counter-revolutionary tide beginning to favour the “strongmen” of the Arab world, whose regimes appeared a couple of months ago to be faltering under the impact of the Arab Awakening?

From Libya to Bahrain and Syria to Yemen, leaders are clinging on to power despite intense pressure from pro-democracy protesters. And the counter-revolution has so far had one undoubted success: the Bahraini monarchy, backed by troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, has brutally but effectively crushed the protesters in the island kingdom. Pro-democracy leaders are in jail or have fled abroad. The majority Shia population is being terrorised by arbitrary arrests, torture, killings, disappearances, sackings, and the destruction of its mosques and religious places.

In three other countries despots under heavy assault have varying chances of survival. A month ago in Yemen it seemed likely that President Ali Abdullah Saleh was on his way out, but he still has not gone and has mobilised his own demonstrators, gunmen and security forces. Nevertheless the army has publicly split and the probability is that he will finally depart.

In Syria protests are continuing across the country despite frequent shootings, but President Bashar al-Assad will take a lot of displacing because of his determination to stay, the strength of his security apparatus and the tight grip on power of the minority Allawi community.

In Libya Muammar Gaddafi teetered on the verge of defeat two months ago when rebels had seized the east of the country and there were demonstrations in Tripoli. Since then he has rallied a core of support and the rebels in Benghazi would collapse if they did not have the backing of Nato airpower. Nevertheless he is likely to go simply because Britain, France and the US are committed to his departure.

All this is very different from what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, where the military and political establishments believed they could get rid of the regime but keep the rest of the state intact. This could not be done in Libya or Syria because the regime and the state are too intertwined.

In Yemen the state is too weak to get rid of the leader, while in Bahrain democracy means a revolutionary transfer of power from the minority Sunni to the majority Shia. The counter-revolution has other advantages. Its leaders are no longer being caught by surprise. Defenders of the status quo no longer think their defeat is inevitable and have recovered their nerve. They can draw on the loyalty and self-interest of state employees and on sectarian allegiances.

The attitude of outside powers to the overthrow of the status quo differs from country to country. The US was in two minds over support for Mr Mubarak, but did not condemn the Saudi armed intervention in Bahrain or the subsequent terrorising of the Bahraini Shia. Washington has a very different attitude to Arab autocracies in North Africa and far more strategically important Gulf oil states allied to the US. Unspoken also as a factor in US thinking is the degree to which revolution or counter-revolution will help or hinder America’s traditional enemy in Iran.

Only in Libya has the struggle between rebellion and the state turned into outright war. The rebels have plenty of support, but they still only control a quarter of the population and they remain militarily weak. Their most important card is Nato air strikes and even these have not enabled the anti-Gaddafi forces to advance beyond Ajdabiya or break the siege of Misrata.

The counter-revolution is showing that it has more going for it than seemed likely two months ago. This only appears surprising because well-established authoritarian regimes went down so swiftly in Tunisia and Egypt. Police states have had time to rally their formidable forces of repression, but even this may not be enough to quell newly politicised populations which believe they can end autocratic rule.

By Patrick Cockburn

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Saudi Shi’ite Clerics Call For End To Protests

Posted on 22 April 2011 by hashimilion

Shiite Cleric Hasan Saffar

Leading Saudi Shi’ite clerics called on Thursday for protesters to end two months of demonstrations in the kingdom’s oil-producing Eastern Province, in an apparent bowing to government demands.

In at least two eastern towns, however, young Shi’ites ignored the call and took to the streets again to demand the release of prisoners and political reforms, activists said.

Inspired by Arab uprisings in Egypt or Tunisia, Saudi Shi’ites have been staging small protests in the Eastern Province, defying a demonstration ban and government pressure.

The Sunni Muslim monarchy of Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter and major U.S. ally, does not tolerate any form of public dissent and the kingdom has not seen the mass uprisings seen in other countries in the region.

After meeting government officials, leading Shi’ite clerics issued a statement asking activists to end demonstrations.

“We urge our beloved brothers … to calm the streets for the sake of brotherly cooperation that will help achieve our demands,” said the statement signed by 51 Shi’ite clerics and other personalities.

“We stress our demands to officials to address the issues and deliver on legitimate rights raised by a group of young people.”

A Shi’ite activist said the statement would probably not halt protests as young people were demanding reforms promised for years.

“It might reduce the number of protestors but I don’t think it will end it,” said the activist, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals.

Saudi Shi’ites have long complained of difficulties getting government jobs and benefits enjoyed by the country’s majority Sunni population, a charge denied by Riyadh.

On Thursday, dozens of Shi’ites staged protests in the main Shi’ite city of Qatif and neighbouring village of Awwamiya, an activist said.

Saudi authorities have been increasingly nervous about protests, arresting participants and making independent travelling for journalists more difficult in the Eastern Province.

More than 160 Saudi activists have been arrested since February, Human Rights Watch said in a report this week.

On Sunday, Saudi authorities arrested a Shi’ite Muslim intellectual al-Saeed al-Majid, two days after protests in the Eastern Province.

 

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Saudi Arabia’s Missteps Into Bahrain

Posted on 21 April 2011 by hashimilion

On March 14, 2011, Saudi Arabia launched its own “Brezhnev Doctrine,” exercising the right to militarily intervene to prop up an unpopular governing order. In the process, the Saudis have demonstrated how little they understand their own region and their own country. Saudi rulers have made a major mistake in casting the crisis in Bahrain as a sectarian conflict in which Iran’s Shia proxies are battling a benign Sunni ruling class for sake of Persian aggrandizement. The rebelling in Bahrain, as indeed throughout the region, is about a disenfranchised and impoverished majority seeking political representation and economic justice. The proper path for Bahrain’s al-Khalifa dynasty is to renegotiate its national compact and appreciate that as the Middle East finally joins the twenty-first century it has limited options beyond a constitutional monarchy.

The aging Saudi rulers nurturing their own misconceptions and conspiracies are hopelessly behind the curve as the Arab Spring gradually suffuses the entire Middle East. The yearning for democratic reforms and economic equality cannot be repressed through police tactics in Riyadh or forceful intervention in Manama. It would be wise for Washington to have a frank and unpleasant conversation with its ally of long-standing. Too often the lure of Saudi oil wealth has caused successive American administrations to placate their truculence. The old Arab bargain whereby the state exchanges material rewards for political quiescence is no longer relevant. If the Saudi monarchy and its Sunni subsidiaries want to survive the turbulent politics of the new Middle East, they will have to opt for political modernization as opposed to offers of bribes mixed with threats of violence.

The Iranian angle is as interesting as it is intriguing. The Islamic Republic is itself beset by a democratic uprising that it has tried to contain at the risk of its own illegitimacy. The Saudi move this week could not have come at a better time for the guardians of Iran’s theocracy. Tehran will likely continue its unequivocal condemnations and portray itself as champion of democracy without actually practicing it at home. By highlighting the deficiencies of the Arab political order and Washington’s seeming passivity, the clerical state can try to capture the region’s political imagination irrespective of its own tarnished reputation. But don’t expect any regional show of force by the Iranian regime. Tehran understands that it benefits the most by limiting itself to rhetorical attacks as opposed to a direct military intervention that could allow the Saudis to portray their power play as part of the effort to contain Iran.

U.S. policymakers must grasp that the crisis in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Middle East is not about Iran and should not be seen through the prism of U.S.-Iran confrontation. The sooner Washington emancipates itself from such flawed perceptions, the sooner it will be in position to craft a new, stable regional order.

Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies

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Fear And Loathing In The House of Saud

Posted on 20 April 2011 by hashimilion

Early last week, US President Barack Obama sent a letter to Saudi King Abdullah, delivered in person in Riyadh by US National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon. This happened less than a week after Pentagon head Robert Gates spent a full 90 minutes face to face with the king.

These two moves represented the final seal of approval of a deal struck between Washington and Riyadh even before the voting of UN Security Council resolution 1973. Essentially, the Obama administration will not say a word about how the House of Saud conducts its ruthless repression of pro-democracy protests in Bahrain and across the Persian Gulf. No ”humanitarian” operations. No R2P (”responsibility to protect”). No no-fly or no-drive zones.

Progressives of the world take note: the US-Saudi counter-revolution against the Great 2011 Arab Revolt is now official.

Those ‘pretty influential guys’

The wealthy, truculent clan posing as a perpetual absolute monarchy that goes by the name House of Saud wins on all fronts.

Last month’s ”Day of Rage” inside the kingdom was ruthlessly preempted – with the (literal) threat that protesters would have their fingers cut off.

With the price of crude reaching stratospheric levels, and with Saudi refusal to increase production, it’s a no brainer for Riyadh to dispense with a few billion dollars in pocket change to appease its subjects with some extra 60,000 ”security” jobs and 500,000 low-rent apartments.

King Abdullah also recently ”received a verbal message” from the emir of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, on the thriving ”bilateral issues” – as in Saudi Arabia ruthlessly repressing the pro-democracy protests in Bahrain by invading their neighbor and deploying their ”security” advisers.

The House of Saud’s violent reaction to the peaceful protests in Bahrain may have been a message to Washington – as in ”we are in charge of the Persian Gulf”. But most of all it was dictated by an absolute fear of Bahrain becoming a constitutional monarchy that would reduce the king to a figurehead; a nefarious example to the Saudi neighbors.

Yet as much as real tensions between Iranian Shi’ites and Arab Shi’ites may persist, the Saudi reaction will end up uniting all Shi’ites, and turning Iran into Bahrain’s only savior.

As for Washington’s reaction, it was despicable to start with. When Sunnis in Iraq oppressed the Shi’ite majority, the result was Iraq shocked and awed to destruction by the neo-cons. When the same happens in Bahrain, liberal hawks have the Sunnis get away with it. (As much as there’s been plenty of spinning to the contrary, the Pentagon’s Gates knew Saudi Arabia would invade Bahrain on the spot, on a Saturday (the invasion started on Sunday night).

Not that Washington cares that much any way or another. Last week, in a Chicago restaurant, President Obama qualified the emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa, as a ”pretty influential guy”. He praised him as ”a big booster, big promoter of democracy all throughout the Middle East’.’ But Obama didn’t notice there was an open mike, and CBS News was listening; so he added, ”he himself is not reforming significantly. There’s no big move towards democracy in Qatar. But you know part of the reason is that the per capita income of Qatar is $145,000 a year. That will dampen a lot of conflict.”

Translation; who cares whether these ”pretty influential guys” in the Gulf reform or not as long as they remain our allies?

The Saudi war of terror

Way back in 1965, the opposition in Bahrain was accused (by the colonial British press) of Arab nationalism (the nightmare of assorted colonialists and also US imperial designs). Now, it is accused (by the al-Khalifas and House of Saud) of sectarianism.

The House of Saud has predictably terrorized the majority-Shi’ite democracy movement in Bahrain with fear, loathing and – what else – sectarianism, the ultimate pillar of its medieval Wahhabi ideology. For intolerant Wahhabis, Shi’ites are as heretical as Christians. Shi’ite holy sites in Bahrain are being demolished under the supervision of Saudi troops. Bahrainis via twitter are stressing Saudis are using ”Israeli tactics”, demolishing ”unauthorized” mosques.

Once again, this may only lead to a total radicalization of the Sunni-Shi’ite divide across the Arab world. Everyone who followed the Bush administration-provoked Iraq tragedy remembers that when al-Qaeda blew up the revered Shi’ite shrine of al-Askari in Samarra, in 2006, that was the start of a horrible sectarian war that killed tens of thousands of people and sent hundreds of thousands into exile.

The House of Saud (as well as the US and Israel) backed Mubarak in Egypt until the 11th hour. They all knew if that ”pillar of stability” fell, the other (Saudi) would also be in danger. For all its bluster, the House of Saud’s actions are essentially moved by fear. In recent years it has lost power in Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and now Egypt. Its ”foreign policy” consists in supporting ultra-reactionary regimes. The people? Let them eat kebab – if that. Their last bastion of power is the Gulf – crammed with political midgets such as Bahrain or Kuwait. With a little thrust, The House of Saud could reduce all these to the status of mere provinces.

Not yet. As the House of Saud developed its counter-revolutionary strategy, the Saudi-Israeli alliance morphed into a Saudi-Qatari alliance. Qatar could be destabilized via the tribal factor – the Saudis had attempted it before – but now they needed a close ally. And that, unfortunately, explains Qatar-based al-Jazeera’s meek coverage of the repression in Bahrain.

It took only a few days for the House of Saud to force the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to toe the new hard line: we are the top dog; there’s no room for democracy in the Gulf; sectarianism is the way to go; our relationship with Israel is now strategic; and Iran is to blame for everything. The ”Persian conspiracy” is the key theme being deployed by the hefty Saudi propaganda machine especially in Bahrain and Kuwait.

Israeli hawks, not surprisingly, love it. There’s plenty of flower power – or downright lunatic – rhetoric in the Israeli press about a ”strategic alliance” between Tel Aviv and Riyadh, ”similar to the one between the Soviet Union and the US against the Nazis”.

And guess what – Obama is to blame for it. Without this strategic alliance, according to the Israeli narrative, the whole Gulf will fall ”victim of a nuclear Iran”, and the Obama administration won’t lift a finger to save anybody. Obama is vilified as someone who ”only confronts and abandons allies”, while emboldening ”evil” Syria and Iran. It’s a narrative straight out of the Loony Tunes.

Shallow grave or bust

Trying to understand the stakes, Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal got it all backwards, blaring there’s a new Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That’s what you get when you regurgitate PR by ”Saudi officials”.

It’s the House of Saud incendiary manipulation of sectarianism which is angering Shi’ites everywhere – not only Iranians; that may turn the Islamic Republic into the only substantial defender of all Shi’ites against Wahhabi medievalism.

It’s the House of Saud counter-revolution against the Great 2011 Arab Revolt – condoned by the US – that has shattered America’s ”credibility on democracy and reform”.

All this while the ”traditional security arrangement” with Washington is not even working anymore. The House of Saud is not stabilizing global oil prices; by refusing to increase production, it will let it reach $160 a barrel-levels quite soon. And meanwhile the White House/Pentagon keeps protecting that medieval bunch that were the first to recognize the Taliban in the mid-1990s, and whose billionaires finance jihadis all across the world.

The Gulf political midgets are now in the process of being homogenized – and kept under a leash – by House of Saud force. Those Gulf kings and emirs may preserve their golden thrones – for now. But expect plenty of cultural and religious violence ahead; plenty of nasty tribalism and sectarian wars, with no possible political evolution and no possible development of a modern civil society. No surprise; fear and loathing are embedded in this reactionary House – an axis of multiple evils in itself that should only deserve a shallow grave in the desert sands.

By Pepe Escobar

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Bahrain Escapes Censure By West As Crackdown on Protesters Intensifies

Posted on 19 April 2011 by hashimilion

Bahraini government forces backed by Saudi Arabian troops are destroying mosques and places of worship of the Shia majority in the island kingdom in a move likely to exacerbate religious hatred across the Muslim world.

“So far they have destroyed seven Shia mosques and about 50 religious meeting houses,” said Ali al-Aswad, an MP in the Bahraini parliament.

He said Saudi soldiers, part of the 1,000-strong contingent that entered Bahrain last month, had been seen by witnesses helping demolish Shia mosques and shrines in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.

The attack on Shia places of worship has provoked a furious reaction among the 250 million Shia community, particularly in Iran and Iraq, where Shia are in a majority, and in Lebanon where they are the largest single community.

The Shia were already angry at the ferocious repression by Bahraini security forces of the pro-democracy movement, which had sought to be non-sectarian. After the monarchy had rejected meaningful reform, the wholly Sunni army and security forces started to crush the largely Shia protests on 15 and 16 March.

The harshness of the government repression is provoking allegations of hypocrisy against Washington, London and Paris. Their mild response to human rights abuses and the Saudi Arabian armed intervention in Bahrain is in stark contrast to their vocal concern for civilians in Libya.

The US and Britain have avoided doing anything that would destabilise Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies in the Gulf, to which they are allied. They are worried about Iran taking advantage of the plight of fellow Shia, although there is no evidence that Iran has any role in fomenting protests despite Bahraini government claims to the contrary. The US has a lot to lose because its Fifth Fleet, responsible for the Gulf and the north of the Indian Ocean, is based in Bahrain.

Sunni-Shia hostility in the Muslim world is likely to deepen because of the demolition of Shia holy places in Bahrain. Shia leaders recall that it was the blowing up of the revered Shia shrine of al-Askari in Samarra, Iraq, by al-Qa’ida in 2006 that provoked a sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia in which tens of thousands died. They see fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine, upheld by the state in Saudi Arabia, as being behind the latest sectarian assault and attempt to keep the Shia as second-class citizens. Mr Sadiq believes Saudi troops are behind the attacks on mosques and shrines. “What is happening comes from the ideology of Wahhabism which is against shrines,” he said. To the Wahhabi, the Shia are as heretical as Christians. Mr Aswad said soldiers in Saudi uniforms had been seen attending the destruction of Shia religious sites.

Yousif al-Khoei, who heads a Shia charitable foundation, said he could “confirm that reports of desecration of Shia graves, shrines and mosques and hussainiyas [religious meeting houses] in Bahrain are genuine and we are concerned that Saudi troops, who believe that shrines are un-Islamic and are trying to enforce that Wahhabi doctrine on the Shia of Bahrain, will undoubtedly result in heightened sectarian tensions.”

Some 499 people in Bahrain are known to have been detained during the current unrest and many are believed to have been tortured. Four who died in detention this month showed signs of severe abuse and appeared to have been beaten to death.

In the case of Ali Isa Ibrahim Saqer, who had turned himself in to the security forces after threats to detain his family if he did not do so, photographs showed signs of whipping and beating. The Bahraini human rights activist who photographed the body was later detained and accused of faking the picture, but the same injuries were witnessed by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

There are continuing arbitrary arrests of people who took part in the pro-democracy protests that began on 14 February. Even waving a Bahraini flag is considered an offence, and a doctor who was shown on television shedding tears over the body of a dead protester was detained.

The aim of government repression is evidently to terrorise the Shia and permanently crush the protest movement. Doctors who treated injured demonstrators have been arrested and on 15 April the authorities detained a lawyer, Mohammed al-Tajer, who defended protesters in court. Human Rights Watch says the families of many of those detained have no word on what has happened to them. The authorities do not seem concerned about providing plausible accounts of how detainees died. In the case of Mr Saqer, who was detained on 3 April and whose body was released six days later, the government said he had “created chaos” in the detention centre and had died while the disturbance was being quelled.

Human Rights Watch, which saw his body during the ritual before he was buried in his home village of Sehla on 10 April, said “his body showed signs of severe physical abuse. The left side of his face showed a large patch of bluish skin with a reddish-purple area near his left temple and a two-inch cut to the left of his eye. Lash marks crisscrossed his back, some reaching to his front right side. Blue bruises covered much of the back of his calves, thighs, and buttocks, as well as his right elbow and hip. The tops of his feet were blackened, and lacerations marked his ankles and wrists.”

The fighting in Libya and unrest elsewhere in the Arab world has drawn attention away from Bahrain, and the authorities have also arrested pro-democracy journalists and prevented several foreign journalists entering the country.

Timeline of unrest

14 February Anti-government protests dubbed the “Day of Rage” attract thousands, prompted by demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia. One person is killed.

15 February Bahrain police open fire on crowds at the dead protester’s funeral. King Hamad attempts to appease the demonstrators, pledging to hold an investigation into the “regrettable” deaths.

26 February The ruling al-Khalifa family makes concessions to Bahrain’s majority Shia population. Hardline Shia dissident Hassan Mushaima is allowed to return from voluntary exile.

3 March First clashes between the Sunnis and Shia Muslim communities since February’s protests.

15 March Martial law is declared one day after Saudi troops enter Bahrain in an attempt to end the unrest. The United Arab Emirates vows to send 500 police.

16 March Bahraini forces arrest six opposition leaders and crack down on protesters.

18 March The geographical focal point of the mainly Shia protests, Pearl Roundabout in Manama, is demolished in an attempt to quash the rebellion. At least seven people die.

3 April Authorities lift a ban on the main opposition newspaper.

4 April Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls on Saudi Arabia to pull out of Bahrain.

10 April The body of Ali Isa Ibrahim Saqer is buried, seven days after he was taken into custody. His body showed signs of whipping and beating.

13 April A Shia opposition party claims that another protester has died in police custody – the fourth so far.

16 April Tensions rise further with new arrests and the alleged death of a female student.

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Libya’s Only a Part of Mideast Equation

Posted on 18 April 2011 by hashimilion

What’s more important than Libya? At least four other countries.

The outcome of the unfinished revolution in Egypt will affect the prospects for democracy across the region. The outcome in Yemen, where Al Qaeda’s most dangerous branch is headquartered, is important to the struggle against terrorism. A change in Syria, Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world, would upend the balance of power on Israel’s northern borders.

And then there’s the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, where troops from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim countries have intervened to quell a Shiite Muslim uprising. It might seem odd to include a power struggle in a quasi-country of half a million citizens on a list of major strategic issues, but the crisis in Bahrain qualifies.

About two-thirds of Bahrainis are Shiite, but Sunni Muslims hold almost all the power. After Shiite groups staged increasingly violent demonstrations to demand more democracy, the government cracked down — and when the Bahraini police faltered, Saudi Arabia and other neighboring countries stepped in with troops.

Opposition groups say more than 400 activists have been arrested; the Bahraini government has refused to disclose the number of arrests. Human Rights Watch has charged that at least seven detainees have died in custody and that some may have been tortured.

Last week, the government announced that it was outlawing the largest — and most moderate — Shiite political party, but then backpedaled after an international outcry.

Why does all this matter? Because Bahrain isn’t the only Arab state on the gulf with a sizable Shiite population. Iraq has a Shiite majority and a Shiite-dominated government. Saudi Arabia is ruled by Sunnis, but it has a significant Shiite minority in its oil-rich eastern province. In all three countries, Shiite Muslims have historically been treated as an oppressed underclass — but now, watching other Arabs win more rights, they’re demanding equality too.

Bahrain matters, as well, because Saudi Arabia treats it as a virtual protectorate. The Saudi royal family doesn’t like to see Shiite Muslim demonstrators demand the head of any monarch; it’s too close to home.

Besides, in the view of many Sunnis, Bahrain’s Shiite protesters look like puppets in the hands of Iran, the Shiite Muslim behemoth across the gulf that has long tried to assert itself as the region’s dominant power.

The fear among many U.S. officials, though, is that the Sunni-Shiite unrest in Bahrain could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Bahraini government stops negotiating with the moderate Shiite opposition, it risks radicalizing its own population — and driving some of them into the arms of Iran. Another outcome could be a conflict between Sunni and Shiite that would cross several borders.

In a worst-case scenario, warned Charles Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-Shiite split could prompt the pro-U.S. government in Iraq to ally itself with Iran, scrambling the basic foundation of U.S. security policy in the area, which aims to make Iraq a bulwark against Iran.

“The strategic stakes in Bahrain are higher than many outside the region appreciate,” Freeman said.

The Obama administration has been urging the Bahraini government to negotiate. Last week, the State Department’s top Middle East hand, Jeffrey Feltman, rushed to Bahrain to try to reopen talks between the government and the opposition.

But the administration has been notably gentle, because it wants the Bahraini royal family to stay in power and it doesn’t want to offend Saudi Arabia.

In a speech last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. “strongly condemned the abhorrent violence committed against peaceful protesters by the Syrian government.” But on Bahrain, she merely warned that “security alone cannot resolve the challenges.” (“We know that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t make sense,” she explained.)

Another official said the administration is promoting reform throughout the Arab world, but it’s also reassuring rulers in places such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain that it won’t insist on immediate change. “It doesn’t have to come fast,” he said.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and national security advisor Tom Donilon visited Saudi Arabia this month to try to patch up the U.S. relationship with King Abdullah, who was furious when Obama backed the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Both U.S. and Saudi officials said the meetings helped repair the U.S.-Saudi alliance on issues such as Iran. But they said there was no sign of any Saudi moderation on the issue of Bahrain, which the Saudis consider their backyard.

The gulf has long been a central focus of U.S. foreign policy, both because it’s the source of much of the world’s oil and because it’s the frontier between the pro-American Arab monarchies and anti-American Iran.

That’s why the U.S. has a naval fleet there — headquartered, as it happens, in Bahrain.

Now Bahrain is at risk. Hard-liners have opted to use an iron fist, to see whether repression can restore stability; reform, they say, can come later. If they turn out to be wrong, the consequences could be dire.

By Doyle McManus

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