Sunni-Shiite Tension Boils in Iraq, Gulf over Bahrain

Reuters Arabic reports that the Saudi invasion of Bahrain on Monday has inflamed sectarian passions in Iraq. Likewise it has angered Iran, which openly condemned the move. Sectarian tensions are boiling throughout the Gulf.

Security forces, possibly including Saudi troops, moved Wednesday morning against the hundreds of protesters still camped out at the Pearl Roundabout downtown. Eyewitnesses told CNN of gunfire and plumes of smoke rising during the assault on unarmed, peaceful civilians.

On Tuesday, hundreds had been wounded as troops fired on protesters, thousands of whom marched on the Saudi embassy. The five leading Shiite clergymen warned of an impending massacre and called on the UN and other international bodies, as well as on Shiite authorities elsewhere, to forestall it.

Aljazeera English has video:

There are roughly 560,000 citizen residents of Bahrain, about 370,000 of which are Shiite Muslims (i.e. about two-thirds of the population). The king and the court and a minority of citizens are Sunni. There are also 300,000 Indian expatriates, about a third of them Hindus, along with other guest workers who bring the total population to 1.2 million.

On Monday some 1000 Saudi fighters, along with some from the United Arab Emirates, came in to protect the Sunni King from Shiite demonstrators, some of whom had been calling for his overthrow.

King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa on Tuesday declared a 3-month state of emergency, effectively forbidding further demonstrations by the Shiite majority.

Reuters reports:

Strict Wahhabi Saudi Arabia carefully regiments its own Shiite population (about 12%) in the oil-rich Eastern Province, and is thought to have been concerned that the Bahrain protests might encourage Saudi Shiites to follow suit.

Likewise, because of the popularity of the ideas of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 revolution against the Shah, some Shiites are republicans in the sense of rejecting monarchy, and both the Saudi and Bahrain dynasties fear them as Gulf Tom Paines.

In fact, most Saudi and Bahrain Shiites have simply been calling for constitutional monarchy and parliamentary governance, a call that is controversial only because both governments are absolute monarchies. Saudi Shiite cleric Tawfiq al-Amer was briefly jailed for demanding a constitutional monarchy.

Iran angrily denounced the Saudi troop presence in Bahrain, authorized by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Ali Larijani, speaking on behalf of the Iranian parliament, said, “The Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament) cautions the regional states that they should not imagine such a military intervention, which is happening at the US orders, would have no costs.” Iran is 90% Shiite and is ruled by a Shiite cleric.

Persian Gulf

Persian Gulf

Meanwhile, Reuters Arabic reported that the Bahrain events divided Iraqis along sectarian lines. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has long opposed US troops in Iraq, said that any intervention against the desires of a majority of Bahrainis represents tyranny. He described what was happening in Bahrain as “a popular revolution and a revolution of the truth, the quashing of which is completely forbidden.”

Khalid al-As’adi, a member of parliament from the Shiite State of Law coalition led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said that the Saudi intervention and that of other Sunni countries, at the invitation of the Bahrain government, will only exacerbate the sectarian struggle. Iraq is 60% Shiite and is ruled by a coalition of Shiite religious parties.

In contrast, Sunni attorney Ahmad Yunus alleged that only the naive could fail to see Iran’s hand in Bahrain’s protests

18 Responses

  1. Thank you, professor, Juan Cole, for your analysis and insight.

    Your “Informed Comment” is very much appreciated.

  2. Interview with Bahraini protester trying to get to Pearl (Lulu) square link to

    Interview with Bahraini doctor who cannot get into the Sulmaniya hospital because of the military blockade link to

    These interviews should get transcripts within a few hours, but audio is available now

  3. Any word on whether there really is a hand in the Bahraini revolution by Iran? As a Shi’a I can attest to the mistreatment of Shi’is throughout the Arab world. One only needs to look at the comments made on Al-Jazeera stories about Bahrain to get an idea of how we are treated. It basically boils down to some sort of racist ideology, where other Muslims believe that killing Shi’is is not only permitted, but highly favored.

    I remember when I visited Saudi Arabia to perform the pilgrimage – they would give my mother and I such a hard time and the only thing they would say is “You’re Iranian!” (Anta Irani!) and when I responded in English, telling them that I’m American, they would back off.

    For many Muslims, being a Shi’i automatically equates to being a pawn or supporter of the Iranian Revolution or Regime. It’s funny: I’m neither.

    • .
      you know better than I the ancient historical ties that Persian and Iranian merchants had to Bahrain and every other port of significance, from Ceylon to Zanzibar.
      How many ports in that part of the world have the Persian name “Bandar ?”

      Iran sees themselves as the final bulwark against Western hegemony and decadence. They see an invisible American hand behind every calamity.
      If the US was smarter at International Relations, we would consult with them at least as much as we do with Israel.
      But we are still mad that they didn’t accept the regime change we gave them in 1953. How long is the USA going to keep fighting that battle, and hurting ourselves in the process ?

      • Brian

        As long as the country in question doesn’t accept US suzerainty.

        The current US Empire often seems to be more like the Ottoman and Mughal Empires than the European Empires.

      • I’m sorry but I don’t go by insinuations and unhelpful accusations – is there any actual evidence that Iran has a hand in it? Just because the merchants have had ties in the past doesn’t mean that the current Iranian government is funding a revolution. Nonsensical accusations get us nowhere. Just like the current accusations that Iran has or is making nuclear weapons are false until proven otherwise, I don’t quickly accept that Iran has a hand in this revolution unless proven otherwise. It was our quick acceptance of non-facts that led to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I’m not going to be fooled again.

        In regards to your American hand comment I don’t necessarily disagree with that point — the Iranian government sees it fit to pose their foreign policy in a light that they are constantly fending off American attacks on the homeland because it works with its people. Of course we’re mad that Iranians didn’t accept the regime change of a democratically elected government to a monarchy — it goes against their intuitions of freedom.

        For an idea of the CIA mentality behind “national security” see this. It should give you an idea of what Iranians were facing during the 50’s regime change that they didn’t want.
        link to

        • Some reports state that Arab lobbies have been playing up the fears of an Iran-backed revolution in America and this is why we haven’t been seeing any response by American diplomats.

          “The six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council include (in addition to Bahrain) Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, all of which have extensive ties to the Pentagon. The organization reportedly strong-armed the White House by playing on fears that Iran might benefit if Bahrain embraced democracy and that, as a result, the entire region might become destabilized in ways inimical to U.S. power-projection policies. “Starting with Bahrain, the administration has moved a few notches toward emphasizing stability over majority rule,” according to a U.S. official quoted by the Journal. “Everybody realized that Bahrain was just too important to fail.””

          link to

          Apparently Libya and Bahrain are linked in that America has agreed to stay mum on Bahrain if Arab dictators will run a no-fly-zone in Libya. I found this comment interesting in Greenwald’s blog.

          link to

  4. The shift in the terms of the Arab debate from “dictatorship vs. democracy” toward “Sunni vs Shi’a” is most unfortunate and dangerous. The former debate was unifying and potentially positive-sum (more liberty for all); in contrast, a sectarian debate is zero-sum, if not negative-sum (we all lose). Unfortunately, it is also much easier to get caught up in a zero-sum debate (we have to oppose those guys to save ourselves) than to stay the course on a generous strategy of working together. Al-Sadr seems to be calling, for example, for Shi’i togetherness rather than civil liberties for all, and this sort of rhetoric only feeds into the process of radicalization provoked by Riyadh’s military intervention.

  5. The Shi’i of E. Saudi Arbia are not the only victims of Wahabi discrimination. The Sulimani Ismaili shi’a community in Najraan in SW Saudi Arabia has been the subject of systematic discrimination for years and was the subject of a Human Rights Watch investigation in 2008. This report can be viewed at:
    link to
    Is there any news of demonstrations in this formerly Yemeni province?

  6. Why haven’t the Saudi troops helped Palistine? Are’nt they Sunni also?

    • Saudis favor “stability,” which in their minds is Israel, not Hamas.

      My question is how far the US opposed this Saudi move into Bahrain, or did they subvetly encourage it?

    • Ian, the Saudis do not help Palestine because the Saudis are an autocracy heavily dependent on U.S. goodwill.

      The Arab autocracies pay lip service to the Palestinian cause, because it is an issue that resonates with their own populations. None of them will go beyond lip service however, as their primary concern is not fulfilling the wishes of their own populations, but retaining the U.S. support that keeps them in power.

      It does not matter whether the autocracy in question is pro-Fatah (like Egypt) or pro-Hamas (like Qatar). They will never get beyond mouthing slogans in support of Palestine because to actually take independent action would make them potential targets for regime change. Arab autocrats love talking about Palestine, but they love staying in power more.

  7. Why is this conflict being talked about in terms of Shiite Sunni conflict?

    There is a despotic king with US and Saudi backing that is trying to deny the rights of its citizens. Why do we view this in terms of religious differences?

    If tomorrow all those villagers that happen to be Shiite convert to Sunni-sm, would the king then grant them their civil rights?

    • There is plenty of video on Al-Jazeera where the demonstrators declare that its not a Sunni-Shia thing and that they just want their rights. Clearly the demonstrations are being framed in a different light so that the monarchs don’t have to face the worldwide outrage.

  8. Good question Daryoush

    Bahrain is reminiscent of Smyrna, September 1922.

    But this time it’s not Muslims attacking Orthodox Christians, its Sunni Muslims attacking Shia Muslims; and rather than a fleet of 27 British, Italian, French & American ships watching and standing idly by, its the US 5th fleet (about 20 ships), and maybe a couple of Royal (British & Australian) Navy ships too.

    If you don’t know about what happened in Smyrna (now called Izmir) in September 1922 then ===>>> link to

    I don’t think the House of Khalifa & the House of Saud could do what Attaturk did in Smyrna, but ….

    Eventually the Allied ships did act to rescue people, but it was too late for too many.


    If the USA did not pay the “blood money” to get Raymond Davis out of Pakistan, then who did. Maybe its was King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa or King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud.

    “Hello Mr President. If you green light our use of force against the Bahraini Shia, then we’ll get your boy out of Pakistan.” ….. “Thank you Mr President, you’ll have your boy back tomorrow.”

  9. The demonstrations in Bahrain, unlike in Tunisia, Libya or Egypt, have involved sectarian issues since the beginning. The Saudis coming in to back up the ruling family of Bahrain (which shouldn’t surprise anyone) is not what ‘played the sectarian card’. It’s the proverbial elephant in the room that the people don’t want to address, and won’t talk about to outsiders. Many commentators – although I don’t include Juan Cole in that list – don’t have a clue about it.

  10. Dr. Cole,

    Do you know what the heck is going with the following story at IRNA? They have it as the headline on the home page so obviously it is a big deal to the government:

    Iranian envoy rejects recent claim by al-Arabiya network
    link to

    I went to Al-Arabiya English and I couldn’t find anything related.

    I couldn’t even make heads nor tails of what they were so upset about. Have they totally lost it? My humble opinion, their agitprop is getting stranger all the time, not at all as savvy as it often was in the Bush years. Not to mention they are just ignoring some of the major stories, as if they imagine they are not there, they will go away, not bothering to spin some of them.

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