BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A regional showdown over Bahrain is exacerbating the split between Iraqi Shi‘ites and Sunnis, who see the machinations of their neighbors through the lens of the sectarian divide that led to years of war in Iraq.
Iraq’s own majority Shi‘ites have adopted the cause of Bahrain’s majority Shi‘ite demonstrators, who are protesting against the rule of a Sunni royal family that called in troops from Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia. The UAE is also sending police.
Iraqi Sunnis, for their part, worry about the prospect of interference by their nemesis, non-Arab Shi‘ite Iran.
For now, it is the Shi‘ite community that has been galvanized. An Iraqi Shi‘ite TV station has been running a banner across the top of the screen reading “Save Bahrain.” Its reports describe the arrival of Saudi troops as an “occupation.”
Moqtada al-Sadr, the outspoken Shi‘ite cleric who long fought against the U.S. presence in Iraq, said an intervention that opposed the will of the Bahraini majority was “unjust.”
“The popular revolution of Bahrain is rightful, and repressing it is absolutely unacceptable,” he said in a statement read to Reuters by a spokesman. “We ask God to give the people of Bahrain patience in the ordeal they are suffering and for this to be the beginning of their victory.”
Khalid al-Asadi, a Shi‘ite lawmaker from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s ruling State of Law bloc, said intervention by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni neighbors on behalf of Bahrain’s rulers would only worsen sectarian strife.
“I think if the king wants the situation to move to normal in Bahrain, he has to ask these (Saudi) troops to leave. They could provoke tension and worry -- and sectarian tension as well -- in this beloved country,” he said.
“Of course we don’t want such a thing to happen to our brothers in Bahrain, but the Saudi and UAE intervention in Bahrain worries us.”
Sunnis are concerned about what they see as the spreading influence of Iran, which has denounced the Saudi deployment in Bahrain as unacceptable.
“If we look at the critical situation in Bahrain, we would be too naive if we ignored the Iranian fingers. Having a Gulf country ruled by a Shi‘ite majority would make Iran more proud than having the atomic bomb,” said Ahmed Younis, a Sunni lawyer.
Iraq, like Bahrain, has a Shi‘ite majority whose members complained for decades of being repressed by a ruling class of Sunni Muslims who dominate the rest of the Arab world.
When U.S. forces toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and replaced him with a largely Shi‘ite government, militias from the two sects waged war that mainly targeted civilians, killing tens of thousands and driving millions from their homes.
Iraq’s Sunnis blamed neighboring Shi‘ite Iran for arming Shi‘ite militia, while Shi‘ites said nearby Arab states were aiding Sunni extremists to keep the majority from taking power.
Today, Iraqis blame the actors they say fomented their own war for taking sides in Bahrain.
Support for Bahrain’s Shi‘ites resonates with ordinary Iraqi Shi‘ites, who see it as a matter of winning democratic rights.
“One family runs a country for ages? Who would accept that? The Shi‘ite majority should have their say in Bahrain,” said Zainab Abdul-Kareem, a private bank worker taking time off to pick her daughter up from school. “It’s a legitimate right and whoever ignores it, he must be either deaf or crazy.”
Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton