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Sectarianism Casts Shadow Over Mideast

By DONNA ABU-NASR
The Associated Press
Monday, January 29, 2007; 3:53 PM

QATIF, Saudi Arabia -- Like many Saudi Shiites, Abdullah Abdul-Hussein is worried that if the government does not end anti-Shiite tirades by influential Sunni clerics, the sectarian conflict ravaging Iraq and threatening Lebanon could spread to his country.

"This rhetoric provokes trouble," said Abdul-Hussein, referring to recent statements from key members in Saudi Arabia's clerical establishment that have urged Sunnis around the world to expel Shiites from their lands.

"We are all citizens of the same country. The government should not allow such excess," said the 37-year-old merchant, expressing a worry shared by many in this mainly Shiite town.

Fears of sectarian tensions go beyond this sleepy oasis in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, where the kingdom's Shiite minority is centered. The bloodshed in Iraq and turmoil in Lebanon have enflamed the Shiite-Sunni divide across the Middle East and in much of the Islamic world.

The tensions are more palpable as Shiites mark Ashoura, one of their holiest days, Tuesday. It commemorates the 7th-century death of Imam Hussein in a battle with the leaders of what would become the mainstream Sunni branch of Islam. His death began the schism between Sunnis and Shiites.

In mainly Sunni Jordan, Shiites did not make their customary pilgrimage to the shrine of Jaafar bin Abi Taleb, one of the Prophet Muhammad's companions, in the southern town of Mazar on Sunday, unlike previous years when hundreds of Shiites _ mainly Iraqis and Iranians _ showed up.

Shiite pilgrims were in part afraid of reprisals from Sunni residents of Mazar and nearby towns over the hanging of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. Saddam's Dec. 30 execution sparked anger among Sunnis around the Middle East against Iraq's Shiite-led government.

In Bahrain, where a Shiite majority is ruled by a Sunni-led government, sectarian bitterness is also growing. Recently a Sunni lawmaker accused Shiites of stocking weapons at Ashoura religious sites, angering Shiites. While state TV previously covered Ashoura events, this year there has been little mention of the ceremonies.

Elsewhere, a suicide bomber killed a police officer protecting a Shiite Muslim procession in Pakistan on Monday, and rocket fire wounded 11 worshippers at a Shiite mosque, stoking fears of sectarian bloodshed.

In Qatif, black flags lined some streets as a sign of mourning for Imam Hussein. Ashoura prayers rang out of mosques and carpets lined a huge courtyard being readied for a gathering where actors would recreate Hussein's slaying.

Only in the past couple of years have Saudi Shiites been permitted to commemorate Ashoura fully and include such rituals as chest-beatings in public processions to demonstrate grief. Some Shiites go further and bloody themselves by striking their bodies with knives, chains or razors.

The government lifted the Ashoura ban as part of reforms that have given Shiites more freedom to practice their religion. The changes were seen as a sign that _ with Shiites gaining power in Iraq _ the Saudi government wanted to accommodate its Shiite community, who make up 10 to 15 percent of the kingdom's 20 million citizens and are concentrated in oil-producing areas.

But other forms of discrimination persist. Shiites say they are barred from sensitive positions in government, the military, schools and hospitals.

Moreover, hard-line Sunni clerics linked to the government have increasingly spoken out against Shiites. One top clergyman, Abdul Rahman al-Barak, recently said Shiites should be considered worse than Jews or Christians. Another went further and called on Sunnis to expel Shiites. The strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam that the kingdom follows considers Shiites as infidels.

Shiites in Qatif are dismayed the government has allowed such talk.

"We reject such rhetoric. It's all based on lies," said Sheik Hasan Nimr, a prominent Shiite cleric. "It's in nobody's interest to inflame such feelings."

"Giving extremists such opportunities without taking measures to limit their influence could harm the country _ all the country, Sunnis and Shiites," he added. "Wars begin with words."

During the days ahead of Ashoura in 1979 and 1980, Saudi Shiites, emboldened by the success of Iran's Shiite clerics in establishing an Islamic republic, rallied to demand more freedoms. Alarmed, the government cracked down on the community, jailing some and preventing others from travel.

In 1988, Saudi Arabia broke off relations with mainly-Shiite Iran, accusing it of supporting terrorism and subversion. Diplomatic ties were restored shortly after the 1991 Gulf War.

Today, Iran and Saudi Arabia are on different sides of the conflicts that are threatening to ignite the Middle East _ Iraq and Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia supports Iraq's Sunnis even as it has reached out to Iraqi Shiites. In Lebanon, the kingdom backs the government of Fuad Saniora, a Sunni, which the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a Shiite guerrilla group, is trying to topple.

The political storms have forced Saudi Shiites to defend their loyalty to their country _ and fend off suspicions that Iran could use them to stir up trouble.

In Qatif, most Shiites back Hezbollah _ but they are quick to say it's not because the group is allied with Iran but because it stood up to Israel, and by extension, the United States.

Most Saudi Shiites pledge their spiritual allegiance to Iraq's moderate Grand Ayatollah Ali, sending him a fifth of their income as alms _ not the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose group is backed by Iran and who is despised by Sunnis around the region who blame his militia for slayings of Iraqi Sunnis.

"There should be a differentiation between religious Iran and political Iran," said Najib al-Khonaizi, a Shiite writer. "The Shiites here will never be utilized to serve any Iranian cause that serves the Iranian state."

© 2007 The Associated Press