Shiites in Iraq Support Bahrain’s Protesters
Tim Arango, New York Times, April 1, 2011
The violent suppression of the uprising in Bahrain has become a Shiite rallying cry in Iraq, where the American war overturned a Sunni-dominated power structure much like the one in place in Bahrain.
Ahmad Chalabi, an erstwhile American partner in the period before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and a Shiite member of Parliament, on Friday denounced what he called a double standard in the Western powers’ response to the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East — particularly in Bahrain, where a Sunni minority dominates a vast and restive underclass made up of his Shiite brethren.
“They called for international action in Libya,” Mr. Chalabi said in a meeting hall on the grounds of his farm outside Baghdad. “But they kept their mouths shut with what is happening in Bahrain.”
The Iraqi Parliament briefly suspended its work to protest Bahrain’s crackdown on largely peaceful protesters, and the prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, also a Shiite, recently said in an interview with the BBC that the events in Bahrain could unleash a regional sectarian war like the one that menaced Iraq just a few years ago.
In the Shiite-dominated south, there have been calls to boycott goods from Saudi Arabia, a Sunni monarchy that sent troops to support the Bahraini government. Followers of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr have taken to the streets to support the demonstrators in Bahrain. And, perhaps most notably, members of the marjaiya, the top Shiite leadership in the holy city of Najaf — usually silent on political matters — have spoken out, including at Mr. Chalabi’s event on Friday, when a Najafi cleric said, “We have tears in our eyes, and our heart aches.”
Mr. Chalabi, in an interview, said it was the first time the marjaiya in Najaf had participated in a political event.
In contrast, few Sunnis have been vocal about Bahrain, and Sunni preachers during Friday Prayer have not made it a rallying cry in the way their Shiite counterparts have. In Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, some have criticized the politicians who are making an issue of Bahrain. In response to the crisis, the authorities in Bahrain have suspended flights to and from Iran and Iraq, the countries in the region with the largest Shiite populations.
Several hundred people — members of Parliament, clerics, Bahraini opposition figures — attended the gathering for Mr. Chalabi’s nascent organization, the Popular Committee in Iraq to Support the People of Bahrain. Outside, artists painted murals.
“This painting represents the connection between Iraq and Bahrain,” said Shurhabel Ahmed, who was working on a section depicting a symbol of the protest movement that had been torn down by the authorities: Bahrain’s Pearl Monument, surrounded by date trees. “This represents the Arab countries,” he said of the trees. “The red is the roots of the tree — the bloodshed.”
Mr. Chalabi called his effort nonsectarian and said some Sunni members of the opposition in Bahrain had been scheduled to attend. “They refused to let them out,” he said. “They stopped them at the airport.”
One Sunni who did attend the gathering was Salah al-Bander, a British citizen originally from Sudan and a former Bahraini government adviser who gained prominence five years ago with a written exposé describing the systematic oppression of Bahrain’s Shiite population. The episode became known as “Bandergate.”
“In Bahrain, it is largely viewed as a Shia uprising,” he said in an interview. “It’s not true. Some Sunnis are among the detainees.”
But the Iraqi Shiite outcry, and especially the meeting that Mr. Chalabi held on Friday to discuss Bahrain’s Constitution, risked lending credence to the claims of the Bahraini ruling class that the uprisings were not the result of indigenous aspirations, but of foreign meddling, especially given Mr. Chalabi’s well-known ties to Iran.
Mr. Bander said the event on Friday — and the broader outcry over Bahrain from Iraq’s Shiite-dominated leadership — sent a message that Iraq was becoming a voice in regional affairs. “Iraqis have been terribly engaged with what’s been going on inside in the country,” he said. “I think Iraq is giving a very powerful dimension to this.”
Indeed, the uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East have had the effect of emboldening Iraqi officials, at least in terms of their rhetoric, to trumpet the country’s own version of democracy — even though it remains violent and shaky and is one that was forced upon it by an American invasion and occupation.
“Iraq was able to free itself and impose a democratic system,” said Mr. Chalabi, who played a large role in persuading the administration of President George W. Bush to invade Iraq, and whose exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, provided some of the faulty intelligence about Iraq’s weapons programs under Saddam Hussein.
He added later, “Whoever doesn’t think Iraqis can take a role in this, they are mistaken.”
Other officials here are also quick to criticize what they see as a double standard toward the Arab uprisings in the policies of the United States, which still has nearly 50,000 troops throughout Iraq.
“We thought it was excellent when President Obama said, ‘Mubarak, you have to go,’ ” said Jabr al-Zubaidi, the former finance minister who is now a member of Parliament. “We didn’t hear that with Bahrain.”
In response to calls for a tougher stance on Bahrain, James F. Jeffrey, the American ambassador to Iraq, told reporters, “We are concerned of course with anything that can trigger any sort of sectarian outbreak or disagreement, discord, diplomatic struggle, or even worse, throughout the region.” He said Bahrain’s crisis should be resolved “on the basis of dialogue, engagement, no violence on either side, to work towards a more democratic and free system.”