Saudi religious police accused of beating Shi'ites

RIYADH, Aug 6 (Reuters) - Saudi Sunni Muslim religious police assaulted and detained a group of mainly Iraqi Shi'ite pilgrims to Islam's holy city of Mecca this month, Saudi and Iraqi sources said on Monday.

A report on, a key news source among Saudi Arabia's minority Shi'ite Muslims, said religious police surrounded the group as they performed pilgrimage inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca. They called the group "infidels", then began hitting them.

Mecca's mayor said he had not heard about the incident but that problems were common as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit the holy city in the intense summer heat.

"Maybe they did something to annoy people in the mosque," Mayor Osama al-Bar said. "I don't think it's because they are Shi'ites or Iraqis. There are about 500,000 people there, it's very crowded."

The group, which included sons of Iraqi politicians and British and U.S. nationals, were then held in detention for up to 24 hours. Some needed medical treatment, the Web site said.

Iraqi parliamentarian Ridda Jawad al-Takki said the group, which included his son, was singled out for being Shi'ite. "They were beaten up because they were holding Shi'ite-style prayers," he said, adding that his son had been hospitalised in Mecca.

Saudi Arabia practices a strict form of Sunni Islam that views Shi'ism as a heresy. Religious police, who often carry sticks, are charged with ensuring Sunni rites and beliefs dominate in the desert country.

Saudi Arabia hosts millions of pilgrims year-round in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, where religious police are more tolerant of Muslims of different backgrounds.

But tension is high in the region because of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims in Iraq. (Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Baghdad)