Thursday, March 17, 2011

Concerns over clashes in Bahrain between Shiite protesters and security forces from Sunni Arab states spilled over into Iraq on Thursday, as thousands of Shiite protesters converged on holy shrines to show support for their brethren in Bahrain.

The Shiite-led uprising in Bahrain has galvanized Iraq's Shiite population. The decision by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states to send forces into Bahrain also threatens to worsen relations between Baghdad and Riyadh, which already views Iraq's Shiite-dominated government as a pawn of Iran.

About 3,000 people in Karbala, 55 miles (90 kilometers) south of Baghdad, gathered between the city's two main Shiite mosques in a demonstration that local councilman Hussein Shadhan al-Aboudi predicted will be dwarfed by much larger crowds after prayers on Friday. About 200 people took to the streets in downtown Baghdad, many of them spontaneously joining the demonstration in a busy shopping area.

"I saw the demo and decided to ... march with the demonstrators in solidarity with our brothers in Bahrain, with whom we are linked in religion and Arab ethnicity," said Amir al-Asaadi, 35, a businessman from Basra.

Parliament discussed sending $5 million in aid to Shiites in Bahrain and demanded that the Arab League and the United Nations immediately intervene.

Former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, criticized the U.S. response to the unrest against the tiny island's Sunni monarchy.

"The American stance on what is going on in Bahrain is indecisive and hesitant," al-Jaafari told a press conference in Baghdad. "Their response was timid, and that was not enough."

He also called on Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, to denounce Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in letters to the Baghdad-based ambassadors of both nations. He suggested that Iraq recall its ambassador from Bahrain.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have sent forces to help Bahrain's monarchy subdue anti-government protests.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has said he fears clashes between Gulf forces and protesters could inflame sectarian violence across the Mideast. Two of Iraq's most prominent Shiite clerics also have weighed in: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on Bahrain's government to cease the crackdown on protesters.

And Shiite anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stoked the discontent, telling his followers in Baghdad and Basra to hold demonstrations to protest the Saudi incursion. Afterward, thousands of Sadrists rallied in their Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, and al-Sadr's supporters also protested in Basra.

Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi urged calm and said all foreign parties should stay out of Bahrain's conflict.

"We call on all to leave the Bahraini people - with all their ethnicities and social sects - to decide their fate by themselves without any intervention," al Nujaifi said.

The reaction Thursday from parliamentarians was one of the strongest outbursts so far by Iraq' parliament, which remained largely silent as demonstrations swept through other countries in the Middle East.

Iraq has grappled with its own internal tensions after years of sectarian killings that brought the country to the brink of civil war in 2005-2008 between majority Shiites and former Sunni ruling elite.

Also Thursday, a Sunni lawmaker said she escaped an assassination attempt as she headed to parliament. Lawmaker Etab al-Douri, a member of the Iraqiya alliance, said three gunmen fired four bullets at her armored car. The attackers fled before they could be captured, and al-Douri and her guards were not hurt.

Police and hospital officials said eight people were wounded Thursday by a bomb strapped to a bicycle in Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad.

Violence has dropped dramatically in Iraq over the last three years, but deadly shootings and bombings still occur every day.


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