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Storm Over Iraqi Shia Support for Bahraini Opposition
Shia Iraqis took to the streets last month to call for regime change in Bahrain, where the government has been accused of human rights abuses in its crackdown on the opposition. Iraqi support for Bahrain's Shia majority has drawn controversy domestically and angered the Gulf states, which have called for the upcoming Iraq-hosted Arab summit to be cancelled. (Photo: IWPR)
Iraqi Shia leaders’ strong support for Bahrain’s opposition has sparked political controversy in Baghdad and apparently angered Gulf nations, which are threatening to cancel the upcoming Arab Summit in Baghdad.
The Iraqi government does not have an official position on Bahrain, but scores of leading politicians have condemned the Sunni-led government’s crackdown on the Shia-majority opposition who are demanding greater Shia representation and political reform. Political representatives have also sharply criticised the presence of thousands of troops from Sunni Gulf nations in Bahrain and formed a pressure group to support Bahrain’s opposition.
The clamour marks the first time that Iraqi officials have openly and actively tried to influence a foreign issue since the fall of the Baathist regime eight years ago this week, reflecting the growing regional clout of Iraq’s Shia majority.
Some Iraqi politicians – including prominent Sunnis – are opposed to the barrage of criticism, however, arguing that Iraq should not meddle in other countries’ domestic affairs.
Gulf nations have also apparently taken notice.
Bahrain’s foreign minister announced this week via Twitter that the Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC, called for the Iraq-hosted Arab summit to be cancelled, and Arab League foreign ministers will meet to discuss postponing or cancelling the summit, secretary-general Amr Moussa told reporters in Egypt.
The Iraqi government has invested hundreds of millions of US dollars in preparations for the May summit, which has already been postponed following unrest in the region.
Bahrain’s flagship carrier Gulf Air has also halted all flights to Iraq, Iran and Shia-majority Lebanon until April 30, citing “the on-going security situation in the region”.
Some prominent Iraqi politicians said they were not surprised by the Gulf states’ position give the furious response of Iraqi legislators to the situation in Bahrain. Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi, a prominent Sunni leader, and Iraq’s deputy foreign minister have been among those who warned against Iraqi politicians getting involved in the Bahrain crisis.
Mohammed Eqbal, spokesman of the Sunni-led Wasat bloc, said legislators spent days on the parliamentary floor reading statements condemning the Bahraini government’s bloody crackdown on protesters, which “sent a bad message to Gulf states and provoked them”.
“Iraq looked like a country that wanted to interfere in Gulf nations’ issues,” he said.
“We hope the foreign ministry will solve this soon. The Iraqi government needs to have a clear stance on the Bahrain issue.”
Othman al-Juhshemi, a member of parliament from the Iraqiya bloc, which includes top Sunni leaders, said, “Gulf states think that Iraq has a veiled stance against them. That stance hurts Iraq’s foreign policy.”
However, many of Iraq’s majority Shia believe the tepid response of western countries to the Bahraini government crackdown on the Shia-led opposition obliges them to get involved.
Human Rights Watch this week called on Bahrain’s public prosecutor to investigate “suspicious deaths” of three detainees, including one who appeared to be badly abused, and for the government to identify detainees’ locations. In addition, Doctors Without Borders has accused Bahraini forces of raiding medical facilities and identifying protesters based on their wounds, causing “patients with critical and life-threatening injuries refusing to go to the hospital due to high levels of fear”.
A pressure group of mostly prominent Shia Iraqi legislators, led by Iraqi National Congress chief Ahmed Chalabi, has brought at least eight Bahraini opposition leaders to Iraq and is lobbying foreign governments including the US and Britain to support Bahrain’s opposition.
The group, the Popular Committee to Support Bahrain, has described the violence as “massacres” and called for Bahraini officials to be tried at the International Criminal Court. The committee also reached out to the Marjayia in Najaf, the powerful Shia religious authority, to drum up support for the opposition.
“The Shia in Iraq are not separated from the Shia around the world, especially from the Shia of Bahrain,” National Alliance member of parliament Abdul Hussein Abtan said.
The controversial Shia Iraqi backing of the Bahraini opposition – which have included street protests in Shia-majority areas – underlines Iraq’s emerging role as the leading Shia Arab power.
Khalid al-Saray, a Baghdad-based political analyst, argued that Gulf state opposition to Iraq hosting the Arab summit is not surprising given Riyadh’s apprehension about the new Shia-led Iraq. The concerns were apparent long before Bahrain became an issue, he said.
Basim al-Sharaa is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad. Editing by IWPR Iraq editorial manager Tiare Rath in Baghdad.
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