Iraqis eyeing Bahrain protests with anger, caution

The Associated Press
Thursday, March 17, 2011; 12:42 PM

BAGHDAD -- Concerns over clashes in Bahrain between Shiite protesters and security forces from Sunni Arab states spilled over into Iraq on Thursday, as thousands of Shiite protesters converged on holy shrines to show support for their brethren in Bahrain.

The Shiite-led uprising in Bahrain has galvanized Iraq's Shiite population. The decision by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states to send forces into Bahrain also threatens to worsen relations between Baghdad and Riyadh, which already views Iraq's Shiite-dominated government as a pawn of Iran.

About 3,000 people in Karbala, 55 miles (90 kilometers) south of Baghdad, gathered between the city's two main Shiite mosques in a demonstration that local councilman Hussein Shadhan al-Aboudi predicted will be dwarfed by much larger crowds after prayers on Friday. About 200 people took to the streets in downtown Baghdad, many of them spontaneously joining the demonstration in a busy shopping area.

"I saw the demo and decided to ... march with the demonstrators in solidarity with our brothers in Bahrain, with whom we are linked in religion and Arab ethnicity," said Amir al-Asaadi, 35, a businessman from Basra.

Parliament discussed sending $5 million in aid to Shiites in Bahrain and demanded that the Arab League and the United Nations immediately intervene.

Former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, criticized the U.S. response to the unrest against the tiny island's Sunni monarchy.

"The American stance on what is going on in Bahrain is indecisive and hesitant," al-Jaafari told a press conference in Baghdad. "Their response was timid, and that was not enough."

He also called on Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, to denounce Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in letters to the Baghdad-based ambassadors of both nations. He suggested that Iraq recall its ambassador from Bahrain.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have sent forces to help Bahrain's monarchy subdue anti-government protests.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has said he fears clashes between Gulf forces and protesters could inflame sectarian violence across the Mideast. Two of Iraq's most prominent Shiite clerics also have weighed in: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on Bahrain's government to cease the crackdown on protesters.

And Shiite anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stoked the discontent, telling his followers in Baghdad and Basra to hold demonstrations to protest the Saudi incursion. Afterward, thousands of Sadrists rallied in their Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, and al-Sadr's supporters also protested in Basra.

Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi urged calm and said all foreign parties should stay out of Bahrain's conflict.

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