KERBALA, Iraq (Reuters) - Hundreds of Iraqis took to the streets in the holy Shi‘ite city of Kerbala on Thursday to rally against the arrival of troops from Sunni power Saudi Arabia in Bahrain.
The Shi‘ite ruling bloc in Iraq has denounced the deployment of troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in Bahrain, where a Sunni royal family has called in aid from its neighbors to help quell an uprising by mainly Shi‘ite protesters.
Confrontation between Shi‘ites and Sunnis in the Gulf risks worsening Iraq’s own sectarian divide after years of war.
Bahrain arrested at least six opposition leaders on Thursday. Its crackdown on protests by the Shi‘ite Muslim majority drew rare U.S. criticism on Wednesday and has raised fears of a regional sectarian conflict.
Iraqi protesters marched through Kerbala toward the shrine of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammad and central figure in Shi‘ite Islam, where they gathered waving Bahraini flags and chanting anti-Saudi slogans.
“Leave, Tyrant,” read one banner carrying a picture of Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
On Wednesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki criticised military intervention by Sunni Arab neighbors in Bahrain, and followers of anti-U.S. Shi‘ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr rallied in Baghdad and Basra in support of Bahrain’s protesters.
“We strongly condemn the Bahrain government’s actions against its people, and the foreign interference against the protesters. We call for the immediate departure of the foreign troops and respect for the Bahraini people’s demand for a democratic constitutional state,” Maliki’s Shi‘ite-led Iraqi National Alliance bloc said in a statement on Wednesday.
Iraq, like Bahrain, has a Shi‘ite majority that complained for decades of oppression under a ruling class of Sunnis, dominant throughout the Arab world.
Since U.S. forces toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 and allowed Iraq’s Shi‘ite majority to take power, Baghdad has had uneasy relations with its Sunni Arab neighbors who are wary of the rising clout of regional Shi‘ite power Iran.
In a parliamentary session on Thursday, some Iraqi Sunni lawmakers joined Shi‘ites in calling on the Bahraini government to meet the demands of protesters and urging Arab countries not to meddle in Bahrain’s affairs.
“We call on all the countries not to interfere in Bahraini affairs ... we don’t want to flood the region with foreign interventions where the only losers would be the people,” lawmaker Salman al-Jumaili of the Sunni-backed, secularist Iraqiya bloc told parliament.
Iran has strongly criticised the intervention in Bahrain by Arab states. Street protests against the intervention have also been held in Lebanon, which along with Iraq and Bahrain is one of three Arab states where Shi‘ites outnumber Sunnis.
Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary and Muhanad Mohammed in Baghdad; Writing by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Peter Graff and Jon Hemming