Patrick Cockburn: Saudi response reveals fear that Sunni power is fading

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The Independent Online

There is growing anger in the Shia community, estimated to number at least 250 million world-wide, at the intervention of troops from Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates in Bahrain to help repress the Shia majority which has been demanding political and civil rights.

"There is a general campaign against the Shia," said Yusuf al-Khoei of the al-Khoei Foundation, a leading Shia charitable organisation. "The best way for these [Sunni Muslim] states to gain the allegiance of the Shia is to treat them nice and stop accusing them of being Iranian spies."

Mr Khoei said it was significant that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the only two Arab states to recognise the Taliban government of Afghanistan which was notorious for persecuting Shia as heretics. He added that suicide bomb attacks on Shia in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq are justified according to Wahhabism, the fundamentalist version of Islam predominant in Saudi Arabia.

"The Bahraini army is wholly Sunni and the police almost entirely so, apart from some community policing officers," said Mr Khoei. The Shia make up some 60 per cent of Bahrain's 600,000 population.

Bahrain is one of only four countries in the world where there is a Shia majority, the others being Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan. The Shia make up only 10 per cent of Saudi Arabia's population.

The protests in Bahrain started in February as non-sectarian demands for political, civil and legal reform. But the killing of demonstrators by the police has led to radicalisation, demands for an end to the monarchy, and growing sectarian clashes between Sunni and Shia.

The al-Khalifa royal family has previously claimed that reformers and protesters are agents of Iran. But, according to cables from the US embassy, it has never been able to produce evidence of this. The Shia demonstrators, supported by some liberal Sunni, have continually emphasised that they are peaceful.

The Gulf monarchies along with Jordan, Egypt and other Sunni Arab states have always been paranoid about a Shia threat. This paranoia has grown deeper since the Shia majority in Iraq has taken power after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In practice the Shia have only gained influence where they make up a substantial portion of the population. By opting for military intervention to quash the movement of mainly Shia protesters in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia is likely to deepen sectarian division.

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