x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Iraqi Shiites wave flag for Bahrain, reminded of plight under Saddam

Iraqis are snapping up Bahraini flags up to wave at protests, unfurl from buildings and fly from car antennas, testimony to the solidarity Iraqi Shiites feel with their religious brethren in Bahrain.

A woman works in a basement workshop in central Baghdad, Iraq, making a Bahrain national flag. The fervour for the Bahrain national symbol is testimony to the solidarity which Iraqi Shiites feel with their religious brethren.
A woman works in a basement workshop in central Baghdad, Iraq, making a Bahrain national flag. The fervour for the Bahrain national symbol is testimony to the solidarity which Iraqi Shiites feel with their religious brethren.

BAGHDAD // The sewing machines have been churning out red and white Bahraini flags at a basement workshop in downtown Baghdad, and Iraqi customers are snapping them up to wave at protests, unfurl from buildings and fly from car antennas.

The fervour is testimony to the solidarity Iraqi Shiites feel with their religious brethren in Bahrain.

It is also a sign of how the crushing of the Bahraini Shiite protests by the island nation's Sunni monarchy, with the help of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies, ramps up sectarian tensions around the region.

Hundreds of Iraqis have taken to the streets in demonstrations against Bahrain's ruling elite and Saudi Arabia. Politicians railed against Bahrain in parliament. Iraq's Shiite prime minister, who hjas been largely silent on most of the turmoil in the Middle East, said Bahrain's actions were threatening to inflame sectarian violence.

The Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, revered by many Shiites inside and outside Iraq, has called on Bahrain to cease the crackdown.

And the Iraqi government is pushing the United States to get more involved, the US ambassador in Baghdad, James Jeffrey, said on Friday.

High-ranking US diplomats, including Vice President Joe Biden, have urged the tiny kingdom's rulers to settle the strife without violence. "We're concerned, of course, of anything that can trigger any sort of sectarian outbreak or disagreement, discord, diplomatic struggle or even worse throughout the region," Mr Jeffrey told reporters. "The Iraqi government would like to see us and others do more to try to resolve the conflict, and we are continuing our contacts in Bahrain toward that end."

The scenario in Bahrain in many ways mimics Iraq: a Shiite majority long dominated by a Sunni minority regime. For Iraq's Shiites, Saddam Hussein's toppling in 2003 helped bring Shiites to dominate power in the country. For Bahrain's Shiites, it is the Khalifa family, which has ruled the island kingdom for more than 200 years and shows no sign of giving up the reins. Bahraini Shiites have long complained of discrimination and a second-class-citizen status.

Talib al Zayadi, owner of al Raya store in Baghdad, which makes flags, banners and other paraphernalia, said: "We support Bahrainis because we are of the same sect, because the majority of Bahraini people are Shiite."

He said business is up almost 20 per cent because Iraqis are buying so many Bahraini flags.

Saudi Arabia fears that any rise in power among Shiite communities in the Gulf will lead to a spread in the influence and power of its top rival, mainly-Shiite Iran.

That worry applies for Bahrain and for Saudi Arabia's own Shiite population which lives in the eastern part of the country - where the oil is.

Saudi leaders hold the same suspicions about Iraq's empowered Shiite community, and for that reason Riyadh's relations with the post-Saddam governments in Baghdad have been consistently cold.

To many of Iraq's Shiites, the fact that the international community intervened on behalf of Libyan rebels but did not interfere when troops from Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries rolled across the causeway from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain reeks of a double standard.

Iraq's powerful top four Shiite clerics, known together as the "marjaiyah" are closely watching all the uprisings in the region, said Sheik Ali al Najafi, the son and aide to one of the clerics.

"But the Bahraini issue is different because there is Arab and international silence and a media blackout on that issue," he said.

Sheikh al Najafi said Iraqi religious leaders are not seeking to provoke a sectarian conflict. However, he said, it was obvious that the Bahraini people were being treated in a sectarian manner.

He said religious leaders in Najaf, where Shiites from around the world study, have been in close contact with their Bahrain counterparts.

One Bahraini opposition cleric who has been studying in Iraq said Bahrainis are able to get their message out through Iraq, in part because Iraq has strong relations with the United States.

Woven throughout the narrative of what is happening in Bahrain is the spectre of Iran.

To be sure, images of Iranian leaders grace some Bahraini mosques. But Juan Cole, a US expert on Islam and professor at the University of Michigan, said when it comes to religious connections, most of Bahrain's Shiites practice a type of Shiism that does not adhere strictly to the guidance of one ayatollah. They were not likely to be taking their guidance from Iran, he said.

Inevitably the sectarian divisions playing out in Bahrain remind many Iraqis of the Sunni-Shiite divisions that only recently were tearing this country apart.