New York Times: Just minutes after the call went out over chat boards and cellphone text messages late Sunday, a group of young men trickled into a main street in the village of Sitra, about 20 minutes southeast of this city.
The New York Times
Published: April 16, 2006
By HASSAN M. FATTAH
MANAMA, Bahrain, April 10 Just minutes after the call went out over chat boards and cellphone text messages late Sunday, a group of young men trickled into a main street in the village of Sitra, about 20 minutes southeast of this city.
The young men, local residents say, blocked traffic, set fire to tires laid on the street and prepared for the arrival of special security forces and for a potentially violent confrontation. But by most accounts, the conflict proved tame: some stones were tossed, the police dispersed the crowd and arrested a few young men and the incident was over within half an hour.
In recent months, organized confrontations between Shiite youths and national security forces have become almost weekly events in Bahrain’s squalid Shiite townships and villages.
The cycle of confrontation, spawned in December when a Shiite cleric from Bahrain was arrested at the airport, is today the most visible sign of the rising sectarian tensions tugging at this sliver of a nation.
Bahrain, whose population of about 500,000 citizens and 200,000 expatriates, is two-thirds Shiite, faced sectarian strife bordering on civil war a decade ago. Now it is often seen as a bellwether of Sunni-Shiite relations as Shiite influence in the region continues to grow and with it, fear of Iranian meddling. And increasingly here, tensions are bubbling to the surface.
“We don’t like going out and demonstrating and closing off streets,” said Ali Hassan Mushaima, 23, a leader of the Unemployed Youth Movement, a group that agitates for labor rights. “But there is no other way to put pressure and get the attention of the government. All we are asking for is that our civil demands be met.”
This once sleepy island, long a weekend playground for Saudis, has become one of the most strategically important spots in the Persian Gulf. It is the base for the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet, produces a notable amount of oil and remains a banking hub. Construction projects, the fruits of Bahrain’s share of the oil boom, dot its coastline.
Politicians see it differently as an enclave that mimics the heavily Shiite demographics of Iraq. In recent years this kingdom has made a series of changes to become a constitutional monarchy. But moves intended to give citizens more say in the government faltered, opposition figures say, and sectarian tensions began to grow as Shiites found their hopes of increased clout dashed.
Hard-line Sunnis in Bahrain portray the country as the edge of a so-called Shiite Crescent that is to be controlled by Iran and is threatening to menace the vastly larger predominantly Sunni Arab world. Sunnis and Shiites have no doubt that this small state is heavily affected by what happens in Iraq and Iran.
“It is only natural that we’d be affected by Iraq, but that effect has begun to hurt us,” said Jassim Reda, deputy head of the municipality of Manama, the capital, and a Shiite politician. “Whenever things in Iraq go haywire, it reflects here.”
When the Askariya Shrine in Iraq, a mosque revered by Shiites, was bombed in February, the protests in Bahrain were the largest in its history, with more than 100,000 demonstrators expressing condemnation, including many Sunnis. When United States-led forces laid siege to Falluja in late 2004, Mr. Reda said, Sunnis in Bahrain also marched in significant numbers to show solidarity with Iraq’s Sunnis.
Shiite politicians insist their demands are simple: they want jobs, equal opportunity in the country’s institutions and greater representation in government. But to many Sunnis here, such aspirations sound more like threats to take control.
They often see Shiites as inextricably linked to Iran and question their allegiance to Bahrain, pointing to incidents in which demonstrators held up pictures of Iranian leaders and the leaders of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah. Portraits of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s former supreme leader, and other Iranian clergy hang in many Shiite homes.
Mr. Mushaima’s group, meanwhile, has adopted a yellow flag. He says it is merely a coincidence that it resembles Hezbollah’s trademark banner, but photographs of Hezbollah leaders hang prominently on the walls in his family home.
“This is the start of a major shakeup in Bahrain,” said Muhammad Khalid Ebrahim, a Salafist Sunni member of Bahrain’s Parliament who has railed against Shiite influence in the country. Salafists regard most Shiite doctrine as heresy.
“There is a plan to turn this country into part of a greater Shiite nation,” he added. “What they want is the king’s seat.” Sunnis, Mr. Ibrahim said, would never allow that. Even moderate Sunnis note that the Shiite opposition is fighting for control more than reform. In one Shiite village, a spray- painted message on a wall explains their angst: “Khalifa, just step down from your perch,” it said, referring to Bahrain’s king, Hamad al-Khalifa.
Shiites bristle at the persistent accusations of allegiance to Iran. They insist that their ties to Iran are purely spiritual, but emphasize that their allegiance is to the land of Bahrain, not to a personality or a leader.
“The government accuses us of being Iranian pawns, but we don’t need Iran’s help, we need the West’s help,” said Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja, director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, a Shiite-dominated group that was banned in 2004. “Any support from Iran ultimately weakens us.”
Tensions came to a climax in December when Sheik Khalid Hamed Mansour Sanad, a prominent Shiite cleric, was detained at the airport upon arrival from Iran. Hundreds of protesters flocked to the airport to demand his release, and violence broke out, leading to many arrests.
Many of those arrested were still in custody in March when Shiite parties demonstrated for their release as thousands of dignitaries descended on Bahrain for a Formula One Grand Prix race. Police efforts to break up the protest prompted rioting, which left tires and garbage burning at a shopping mall.
Demonstrators have since held quiet weekly protests in various parts of Manama to demand the release of those arrested, and organized confrontations by Shiite youth have raged outside the city. On April 11, a Bahraini appeals court acquitted one protester, halved the sentences of eight and upheld those of four others. Thirty-four prisoners arrested during the incident remain in custody, in addition to others arrested in the demonstrations that followed.
Many say they hope the storm will soon pass.
“They say this is the golden age for the Shia,” said Sheik Ahmed Mahouzi, a prominent Shiite cleric. “But that can only happen if they are just, and have strong allies. Otherwise they will lose everything when the Americans leave Iraq.”