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Saudi Shi'ites troubled by Sunni rhetoric

Minority asks government to quell clerics

A man left a Sh'iite community center in Manama, Bahrain, yesterday where Shi'ites were marking Ashoura, a commemoration of the assassination of Imam Hussein, grandson of Islam's founding Prophet Mohammed. (Hasan Jamali/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

QATIF, Saudi Arabia -- Like many Saudi Shi'ites, Abdullah Abdul-Hussein is worried that if the government does not end anti-Shi'ite tirades by influential Sunni clerics, the sectarian conflict ravaging Iraq and threatening Lebanon could spread to his country.

"This rhetoric provokes trouble," said Abdul-Hussein, referring to recent statements from key members in Saudi Arabia's clerical establishment that have urged Sunnis around the world to expel Shi'ites from their lands.

"We are all citizens of the same country. The government should not allow such excess," said the 37-year-old merchant, expressing a worry shared by many in this mainly Shi'ite town.

Fears of sectarian tensions go beyond this sleepy oasis in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, where the kingdom's Shi'ite minority is centered. The bloodshed in Iraq and turmoil in Lebanon have enflamed the Shi'ite-Sunni divide across the Middle East and in much of the Islamic world.

The tensions are more palpable as Shi'ites mark Ashoura, one of their holiest days, today . It commemorates the seventh-century death of Imam Hussein in a battle with the leaders of what would become the mainstream Sunni branch of Islam. His death began the schism between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

In mainly Sunni Jordan, Shi'ites did not make their customary pilgrimage to the shrine of Jaafar bin Abi Taleb, one of the Prophet Mohammed's companions, in the southern town of Mazar on Sunday, unlike previous years when hundreds of Shi'ites -- mainly Iraqis and Iranians -- showed up.

Shi'ite pilgrims were in part afraid of reprisals from Sunni residents of Mazar and towns over the hanging of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. Hussein's execution Dec. 30 sparked anger among Sunnis around the Middle East against Iraq's Shi'ite-led government.

In Bahrain, where a Shi'ite majority is ruled by a Sunni-led government, sectarian bitterness is also growing. Recently a Sunni lawmaker accused Shi'ites of stocking weapons at Ashoura religious sites, angering Shi'ites. While state TV previously covered Ashoura events, this year there has been little mention of the ceremonies.

Elsewhere, a suicide bomber killed a police officer protecting a Shi'ite Muslim procession in Pakistan yesterday, and rocket fire wounded 11 worshippers at a Shi'ite mosque.

In Qatif, black flags lined some streets as a sign of mourning for Imam Hussein. Ashoura prayers rang out of mosques and carpets lined a huge courtyard being readied for a gathering where actors would recreate Hussein's slaying.

Only in the past couple of years have Saudi Shi'ites been permitted to commemorate Ashoura fully and include such rituals as chest-beatings in public processions to demonstrate grief. Some Shi'ites bloody themselves by striking their bodies with knives, chains, or razors.

The government lifted the Ashoura ban as part of reforms that have given Shi'ites more freedom to practice their religion.