Distrust of Iran behind Gulf clampdown on Shiites: analysts

DUBAI, Acil Tabbara - Distrust is rising in the Gulf as Sunni-ruled monarchies impose a raft of constraints on the region's Shiites in a bid to halt the rise of an Iranian "fifth column", analysts said on Tuesday.
Restraints have been imposed in the past months against Shiite communities in Bahrain and Kuwait, as Gulf states are fearful of "terrorist" attacks in response to any military strike against Iran.

Abdul jalil Sankis
Abdul jalil Sankis
"I think the resurgence of tensions is linked to Iran and threats by Tehran to retaliate in neighbouring countries in case of confrontation with the United States," Abdul Khalek Abdullah, a professor at United Arab Emirates University said.
At the same time, "Iran has entitled itself as a defender and protector of the world's Shiites, increasing the fears of Gulf countries about their Shiite citizens."
The United States and Israel have not ruled out military action against their arch-foe Iran, which they suspect of using a civilian nuclear programme as a cover to develop atomic weapons, a charge Tehran denies.
But Bahrain itself came in for criticism from global rights watchdogs for a "clampdown" in which the Gulf kingdom charged 23 Shiite activists early this month with forming a "terror network" aimed at bringing down the government.
Amnesty International also urged Bahrain to reconsider the decision to suspend the board of a prominent human rights organisation that criticised authorities in the Gulf state.
Bahrain also barred religious candidates from preaching in mosques ahead of its October 23 general elections in what was seen as a measure to reassert control in places of worship in the Sunni-ruled but majority Shiite kingdom.
And just this week, Bahrain stripped a prominent Shiite cleric of Iranian origin, Ayatollah Hussein Mirza Najati, of his citizenship for "violation" of the law, media reported.
Similarly, Kuwait denied Shiite activist Yasser al-Habeeb his citizenship on Monday, accusing him of abusing religious symbols and attempting to trigger sectarian tensions.
More than two weeks ago, Habeeb made disparaging remarks against the Prophet Mohammed's wife Aisha, triggering a sectarian rift between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that prompted the government to ban all public gatherings on Sunday.
Shamlan al-Issa, a lecturer at Kuwait University, believes these developments cannot be isolated from the rise of pro-Iranian Shiite movements in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
But to counter Iran's influence, "it is necessary to provide Shiites with their rights so that they no longer feel aggrieved," he said.
Zaidi rebels have been for months locked in on-off fighting with Yemeni and Saudi troops, while the Sanaa government has repeatedly accused Iran of backing the northern Shiite rebellion.
Shiites who make up about one-third of Kuwait's population of 1.1 million "complain of reduced access to security services and senior state positions," said Issa.
However with nine members in the 50-seat parliament and two members in the emirate's 16-member cabinet, Kuwaiti Shiites seem more fortunate than their Saudi counterparts.
"There is a crisis of confidence between the region's regimes and their people, particularly Shiites," said Ibrahim al-Mughaiteeb, president of Saudi Arabia's Human Rights First organisation.
He also called for Shiites to be given their "full rights" in Saudi Arabia, where "it is forbidden for a Shiite to be a colonel or in a higher rank."
Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have both criticised Saudi Arabia this year for detaining numerous Shiites in its eastern provinces mostly in connection with their religious practices.
Iraq's Shiites were "never next to Iran during the Iraqi-Iranian war, on the contrary, they defended their country," Mughaiteeb said.
"But accusing Shiites of being a 'fifth-column' is baseless... And if a strike takes place against Iran, then Saudi's Shiites will stand alongside their government and not Iran," he added.
Loyal as they are to their countries, fears of Shiites' allegiance to foreign sides are fuelled by their dependence on Marjaiya (the highest Shiite religious authority), mainly based in Iran's Qom and Iraq's Najaf.
Split from the Orthodox Sunni Islam, Shiism was born out of a political-religious conflict about the succession to the Prophet Muhammed.

Tuesday, September 21st 2010
Acil Tabbara

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