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Bahrain's Shiites poised for another round against Sunni establishment

Bahrain's Shiites poised for another round against Sunni establishment

Like most Shiite Muslim villages in this wealthy Gulf kingdom, Sitra is hidden away from the glitzy shopping malls, the steel-and-glass skyscrapers, the six-lane highways and luxury seaside hotels.
Less than three miles outside Manama, the booming capital, Sitra is dusty and poor. Many of its homes are shoddily built. The streets are dimly lit at night and some are unpaved.
Young men in cheap tracksuits idly gather on street corners. Hardly a wall in the village is without anti-government graffiti or images of Shiites killed in years of anti-government protests.
The disparity between the country's affluent areas and Shiite villages such as Sitra lies at the heart of a potentially bloody conflict in this tiny island nation where a Shiite majority is ruled by a Sunni Muslim establishment.
Many fear that any unrest in Bahrain _ held up by the U.S. as a paragon of democratic reforms _ could spill across the Persian Gulf, including to Saudi Arabia whose Shiite minority of some 15 percent is centered in the country's east, where its oil fields lie.
Bahrain's Shiites, about 70 percent of the 450,000 citizens, are restive again, raising fears that this close American ally and home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet is heading for a repeat of the Shiite turmoil that shook it a decade ago.
Mohammed Jawad, a 55-year-old Sitra resident, is a veteran of the violence of the mid-1990s to demand an end to what Shiites saw as persecution by Sunni authorities. He was jailed from 1994 to 1996 and says he was tortured.
"The situation will blow up one day. If not today, it's tomorrow, and if it's not tomorrow it will be next year," said Jawad.
Bahraini Shiites' demands for change have been fueled anew by the ascent of Iraq's Shiites and the admiration won by the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah in its fight against Israel. But the violence in Iraq and the fragile political picture in Lebanon _ where Shiites are now demanding greater power in government _ also offer caution to Bahrainis.
Bahraini Shiites were back on the streets last summer, burning tires, torching vehicles and pelting police patrols with firebombs and rocks.
The king, Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, has fostered some reforms since coming to the throne in 1999. But many Shiites feel he hasn't gone far enough.
They also accuse the government of allowing non-Bahraini Sunnis to gain citizenship to alter the demographic balance. Officials deny such a practice exists; Shiites insist it does but are less certain on how to battle for their rights _ whether through political action or street violence.
The main Shiite opposition group, Al-Wefaq, won 17 of parliament's 40 seats in elections last month, but it boycotted the king's inauguration of the new house to protest what it calls the "marginalization" of the Shiites.
The election was held amid growing frustration over the slow pace of reform and the leadership's reluctance to yield to calls for changes in the constitution adopted by a royal decree in 2002. Shiites complain it favors Sunnis.
In Sitra, Muhammad Jawad's son, Hussein, says he knows some of the youths who battled police last summer, calling them poor, unemployed and angry.
"They just cannot take it any more," the bearded 18-year-old said.
His father says his hearing is damaged and his legs sometimes shake uncontrollably from the torture he endured in prison. His son has taken a different approach, joining a generation of young Shiite activists working within the system for reform.
Last year, he and a friend applied for a permit to set up the Bahrain Youth Society For Human Rights. The government didn't say yes _ but it didn't say no either _ so they went ahead and set up their society. It now has 35 members, Sunnis and Shiites, organizing a Web site and workshops to train young people as human rights monitors.
Jawad's family, like roughly 25 percent of Bahrain's population, originally hails from Shiite Iran. Many Bahraini Sunnis point to Shiites' ties to Iran to question their loyalty to their country.
Hussein, says his national allegiance is beyond doubt. "I am a Bahraini and nothing else," he said. "But my spiritual inspiration comes from Iran."
Shiites reel out a long list of grievances that they say show how Sunnis view them as second-class citizens _ including the one-sided distribution of services and public money and the low number of Shiites in the armed forces and government jobs.
Bahraini officials have repeatedly denied Shiites are discriminated against. Information Minister Mohammed Abdel Ghaffar quickly defended government policies early this month when critics complained not enough Shiites were hired as security forces.
"These jobs are open to any citizen according to their merits," he said. "Sunnis and Shiites are brothers. There is intermarriage. We have Shiites everywhere, not only in the security forces."
Even critics note Sheik Hamad has brought some beneficial changes for Shiites. Early in his reign, he freed thousands of political prisoners, closed jails where torture took place and allowed exiles to return home.
He also allowed opposition newspapers, human rights groups and non-governmental organizations to organize and operate with relative freedom. Political parties remain banned, but "political societies" operate as a substitute.
"The difference between the situation now and what we had back in the 1990s is equal to the distance between heaven and earth," said Mansour al-Jamri, editor of the opposition daily al-Wasat and the son of a Shiite cleric who was the spiritual leader of the 1990s protests.
Washington touts Bahrain as a model of reform in the Arab world. But a State Department report in March still provided a long list of human rights violations, including restrictions on free speech and the media, and of discriminatory policies such as drawing election boundaries to weaken Shiite voting strength.
Shiites say the biggest threat is the granting of citizenship, jobs and housing to Sunnis from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Yemen and Pakistan to tip the population balance.
They say their majority has been slashed by up to 30 percent since the 1970s and the Sunni naturalization policy has them in a race to gain their rights as citizens before they are reduced to a minority.


Updated : 2021-08-02 21:51 GMT+08:00