In Bahrain, Worries Grow of Violent Shiite-Sunni Confrontation


MANAMA, BAHRAIN — Mohammed Ibrahim, 19, a Shiite student at the University of Bahrain, says he has gotten used to the tear gas the police use to disperse protests, which he and his friends attend every Friday.
Suspended for several months after the violent suppression of last year’s pro-democracy movement, he recently was allowed back on campus.
“They had suspended me because I participated in demonstrations on the campus and there had been fights with some Sunni students,” Mr. Ibrahim said in an interview last week.
Now he is back in school, but the situation between Shiite students like him and Sunni students is very “tense,” he said.
“I don’t think any longer that peaceful demonstrations are enough,” he said. “I think we should fight the police back, when they attack us.”
Mr. Ibrahim belongs to the 14th of February movement, a group that started with peaceful protests but that in recent weeks has seen some members calling on the Internet for violent protests to overthrow the government — and especially the ruling family.
He said he and other student activists were ready to fight with stones and Molotov cocktails.
“We have to become strong, like some groups in Iraq who are defending the rights of Shiites,” said his friend Salah, 22, who would only give his first name.
People like Mr. Ibrahim and his friends are a worry to Western and Arab security officials who say that the passions unleashed by last year’s democracy campaign are evolving into another violent Shiite-Sunni confrontation, like the one that plagues Iraq.
Ever since gaining independence from Britain in 1971, the island’s Sunni rulers have had uneasy relations with some of the Shiite population, leading to periodic civil unrest. But now, according to a British security official speaking on condition of anonymity, “We see an increase of attacks against policemen and a change in the language on the Internet from Shia and Sunni young people.”
Bahrain has become the turf for a bigger regional conflict as well.
“The situation in Bahrain started as a nonsectarian movement for freedom and turned into the hottest battlefield in the Iranian-Saudi regional war,” said Omid Nouripour, a member of the German Parliament and an expert on Iran and security issues. “As the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is supporting the state-repression inside Bahrain, Iran acts as the protector of the Shia.”
Each Friday, before heading to protests, Mr. Ibrahim, like many other young Shiites, drives to Diraz, a village on the northwest coast, to listen to the kingdom’s most influential Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Issa Qassim.
On a Friday this month, the mosque was packed to overflowing with worshipers. Nearby hung a large banner portraying Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Until recently, Ayatollah Qassim preached peaceful protest, but last Friday his language changed. Criticizing police violence against female protesters, he said the police who attacked women could be attacked in return.
“This is a really dangerous message to the government,” said Habib al-Marzouk, who was present in the congregation. “He said, ‘It is enough, we cannot sit silent and see how they are attacking our women.”’
Mr. Marzouk said some Shiite youth would take that as broad approval for violence against security forces. A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that since the speech some police officers had been heavily beaten.
After the brutal repression last year of the democracy protests, in which many people were injured and arrested and some, mainly protesters, were killed, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa ordered an inquiry by an independent commission led by Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian lawyer.
According to its final report, released in November, 35 people died in the protests, including five security personnel. Hundreds were wounded, mainly by the police. Human rights groups say that the death toll has now risen above 50 in renewed violence.
But the report also said that protesters had attacked members of the Asian expatriate community and it criticized opposition leaders for rejecting reform proposals offered by the crown prince, Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, in March 2011. Concessions offered by the prince “could have paved the way for significant constitutional, political and socioeconomic reforms and precluded the ensuing negative consequences,” it said.
“The Bassiouni Commission provides a pathway forward, but implementation will be a long and difficult process,” said Jon Alterman, Middle East director at the Center for Strategic and International studies in Washington. “There is political will in some corners of Bahrain to resolve this, but I also hear voices on all sides of this issue who argue that genuine compromise now is a mistake, because it will only lead to greater weakness and greater compromise in the future.”
For now, the opposition and government are not even on talking terms.
“We have invited the opposition several times to take part in the national dialogue and negotiations, but they always refused,” said Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, International Counselor at the Information Affairs Authority. “Our doors are wide open and they can come anytime and start the dialogue.”
Mutual distrust runs deep, people on both sides acknowledged in interviews. Ali Salman, the president of Al Wefaq, the main legal opposition group, said people would stop protesting only if they saw real changes. “We don’t want the ruling family to step down,” Mr. Salman said. “We want them to reign but to hand the power over to the people.”
“Look at the Moroccan king — he did not ignore the voices of his people and has done the right steps,” Mr. Salman said. “The problem is, we don’t see such steps in Bahrain.”
Still, Guido Steinberg, a specialist in Middle East and Gulf affairs at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, warned that opposition intransigence might be self-defeating.
“I understand that the opposition doesn’t trust the government after all the years of promises,” Mr. Steinberg said. “But I think it is making a mistake by not starting a dialogue, because they are losing more and more young people to radical Shiite movements.”
Western intelligence officials said they were also concerned that parts of the opposition were building links to questionable groups in Iraq, Lebanon and Europe. “When we hear that some members of the opposition are in touch with Hezbollah or with shady figures like the Iraqi Ahmed Chalabi, of whom we think he is acting on behalf of Iran, then this worries us,” said a French intelligence official.
Jawad Fairooz, secretary general of Wefaq and a former member of Parliament in Bahrain, acknowledged that there had been contacts with Mr. Chalabi. “Mr Chalabi has helped us with contacts in Washington like other people have done and we thank them,” Mr. Fairooz said. “But we are not allowing any person or party from outside to dictate us what to do in Bahrain.”
Wefaq’s leaders say they are aware of the risk of growing radicalization among young Shiites after nearly a year of political stalemate.
“We had incidents where some youths threw Molotov cocktails,” Mr. Salam said. “We are trying to stop it, but there are some people who would not listen anymore.”
Without concessions by the government, he said, “neither me nor Sheik Issa Qassim will be able to stop them.”
At Jaw prison, an hour by car from Manama, political detainees include 32 people under 18 years old, arrested during last year’s uprising. In interviews in a room without guards, several said they would continue to support the 14th of February movement. “We will not stop until all Khalifas will leave the country,” said Ali Sayid Hussain, 17.
Yet European intelligence officials and security experts warn that, with tensions between the West and Iran rising, the window of opportunity for the opposition to win concessions may be closing.
“The Bahraini government is getting more pressure from the Sunnis and Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Steinberg said. “This is weakening the people within the government who want reforms and strengthens hard-liners whom the opposition is fighting.”
The unresolved conflict, meanwhile, has also increased frustration among Sunnis in Bahrain, especially the young. In Muharraq, a mainly Sunni area, the police recently had to intervene to prevent young Sunnis from disrupting a Shiite religious procession.
“There is a growing anger and fear amongst Sunni youth, especially after we see what is happening in Iraq,” said Hassan, 22, a Muharraq resident who asked not to be fully identified. “As soon as the Americans officially left, the Shiite-led government went after Sunnis.”
On Feb 14, the anniversary of the first democracy protest at the Pearl roundabout, opposition groups plan a demonstration at the place where Bahrain’s iconic Pearl monument stood, until the government bulldozed it last March.
“We thing there will be clashes,” said Mr. al-Marzouk, whose brother is a Wefaq spokesman. “Actually, we are sure about it.”