Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

Iraqi Shia Back Bahrain Protesters

Publisher Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Publication Date 24 March 2011
Cite as Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Iraqi Shia Back Bahrain Protesters, 24 March 2011, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Ahmed Khalil stands among thousands of demonstrators in Baghdad's Sadr City, chanting slogans against Bahrain's leaders and bitterly complaining that his Sunni brethren are not beside him.

"Once again my Sunni friends shocked me by not paying attention to Bahrain," said Khalil, a 23-year-old engineering student, while flashing a Bahraini flag on his mobile phone to show support for demonstrators in the tiny Gulf nation. "The lack of attention is only because the demonstrators are Shia."

Demonstrations supporting Bahrain's protesters have been held daily in largely Shia neighbourhoods and provinces, fuelled by anger over the crackdown on the anti-regime movement.

From mid-February, thousands of mostly Shia demonstrators have been taking to the streets of Bahrain calling for political and economic reforms. Many have been killed or injured in clashes with the security forces.

To quell the demonstrations, the Bahraini government called on Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC, member states to send troops to the troubled country. Sunni nations Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have deployed about 2,000 troops and police between them.

Those actions have angered Iraq's Shia majority, many of whom believe that their fellow Shias have been left without support.

Internationally, debate has focused on similarities between the military interventions in Iraq and Libya. Shia in Iraq, however, see comparisons between Bahrain and Iraq, noting that, just as in Iraq before the fall of the Sunni-led Baath regime in 2003, Bahrain is a Shia-majority country ruled by a Sunni minority.

"The Bahraini government is doing what Saddam was doing to Shia by persecuting them and not giving them jobs," Khalil said. "They are suffering from the same problems that we used to have. They are our brothers in religion and sect. I will do anything to support them."

Khalid al-Sarayi, a political analyst, said the fierce crackdown on demonstrators in Bahrain brought back painful memories of the Baath regime's suppression of the Shia uprising in 1991.

And Sarayi says Iraqi Shia fear that the sort of Sunni extremist violence that plagued post-Saddam Iraq could emerge in Bahrain.

"Years of al-Qaeda activities in Iraq have raised Shia concerns that a military led by Salafis (Sunni extremists) could take over Bahrain," he said.

"America protected us from al-Qaeda," Saleema Ali, a 52-year-old housewife in Baghdad, said. "But who is going to protect the Bahraini people?"

In addition to street protests, Iraq's most influential Shia ayatollahs have spoken out against the crackdown on the Bahraini demonstrators.

Last week, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani made the rare decision to shut down Najaf's famous religious school, the Hawza, in a show of solidarity with the Bahraini protesters. And the powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has called for demonstrations against the military intervention in Bahrain and protests have been organised in his Baghdad stronghold, Sadr City.

Shia politicians have also condemned the Gulf military deployment in Bahrain. Local media reported that the Shia-led National Alliance called for foreign forces to withdraw, while other leaders have demanded the closure of the Saudi Arabia and Bahrain embassies in Iraq and a boycott of Bahraini products.

Iraq's Shia-dominated parliament twice suspended its sessions in a show of support for the Bahraini people, and last week Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia, cautioned that the presence of foreign troops could "complicate the situation" and possibly provoke "sectarian tensions".

But while Iraq's Shia community and politicians have condemned the crackdown on Bahraini demonstrators, there has been little criticism from the country's Sunnis.

Parliamentary speaker Usama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni, described the situation in Bahrain as "dangerous", while Iraq's ambassador to the Arab League, Qais al-Azawi, reportedly called Bahrain's protesters "savages," infuriating many Shia.

"Focusing on the Bahraini issue will not serve the interests of Iraq and it's an interference in other countries' affairs," Hamed al-Mutlaq, a legislator from the Iraqiya coalition which includes top Sunni politicians. "Instead of criticising Saudi forces that intervened upon Bahrain's request, we should have condemned the coalition troops' attacks on Libya."

Meanwhile, Iraqi Shia protests over Bahrain are only growing.

"The international and the Islamic community have stood with the Libyan people to support and protect them militarily, but they have stood by as spectators while the blood of the Bahraini people has been shed," Sheikh Ali al-Najafi, son of the grand ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, said.

Rafe Abul-Jabar, a lawmaker loyal to Sadr who has virulently opposed the American presence in Iraq, said the demonstrations will continue. He maintained their goal was to build momentum to "influence the superpowers [to] intervene on behalf of the Bahraini people, just as they have done in Libya".

Hazim al-Sharaa is a member of IWPR's editorial staff in Baghdad. IWPR Iraq senior local editor Abeer Mohammed contributed to this report from Baghdad.

Copyright notice: © Institute for War & Peace Reporting

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