BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Hundreds of Iraqi Shi’ites rallied in Baghdad on Saturday to demand the immediate withdrawal of Saudi troops from Bahrain, which has sparked reminders of Iraq’s own sectarian divide.
Shi’ites in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran have expressed anger over the movement of forces from Sunni Arab states into Bahrain to help its Sunni royal family squash pro-democracy rallies by majority Shi’ites.
Protesters in central Baghdad on Saturday chanted “no to al-Saud.” Some carried banners which read “Saudi occupation should end” and “Why is there Arab silence toward the massacres committed in Bahrain?.”
“We advise (our) brothers in Saudi Arabia to immediately withdraw from Bahrain,” Hadi al-Amiri, Iraq’s transportation minister and head of the Badr Organization, which arranged the protest, said in an address to demonstrators.
Badr is the former armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), a main faction in Iraq’s Shi’ite alliance, which also includes that of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Maliki has criticized the intervention by Gulf states in Bahrain and said it could spark a sectarian war in the region.
Like Bahrain, Iraq has a Shi’ite majority that complained for decades of oppression under a Sunni ruling class which is dominant throughout the Arab world.
Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion which toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and enabled the Shi’ite majority to take power, Baghdad has had uneasy relations with Sunni neighbors.
Neighboring Sunni countries have been unnerved by the Shi’ite-led uprising in Bahrain and Gulf Arab rulers have accused non-Arab Shi’ite Iran of interfering.
Amri criticized Bahraini authorities for suppressing its Shi’ite population and asked the Arab League and human rights groups to do fact-finding missions in the Gulf Arab kingdom.
“Barbarian acts against people asking for freedom should stop and the Saudi occupation is not tolerated anymore,” Hadi al-Ghurabi, a Shi’ite cleric said.
Reporting by Hadeer Abbas; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Serena Chaudhry