Thursday 20 October 2016

Sectarian tensions rise after Saudi execution of Shia cleric

Louisa Loveluck Beirut

Published 05/01/2016 | 02:30

A screen grab taken from undated footage issued by Isil militants shows the murder of men accused of being spies for the UK. Photo: PA
A screen grab taken from undated footage issued by Isil militants shows the murder of men accused of being spies for the UK. Photo: PA

Bahrain has joined Saudi Arabia in cutting its diplomatic ties with Iran amid rising sectarian tensions sparked by the Saudis' decision to execute a leading Shia cleric.

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Minister of Media Affairs Isa al-Hamadi confirmed yesterday morning that the country would follow the lead of Saudi Arabia by stopping all diplomatic relations.

It comes as blasts rocked two Sunni mosques in central Iraq amid rising sectarian tensions in the region following the execution of the cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Security officials in Iraq said uniformed men had detonated explosives outside mosques in the Hilla region, south of Baghdad, under cover of darkness. A muezzin was reportedly shot dead near his home in Iskandariyah, some 35 miles from the blasts.

The violence comes three days after Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni power in the Middle East, said it had executed Nimr, a Shia cleric whose fate became intertwined with the regional power struggle between the kingdom and the theocrats of Shia Iran.

Nimr's execution pushed relations between the rival powers to their lowest ebb for years and set the stage for the exploitation of sectarian tensions across the region. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), which now has a presence in most Middle Eastern countries, is also working to deepen that divide.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blasts in Hilla, nor for the killing near the town of Iskandariyah. Isil has said it was responsible for several attacks on Iraqi security forces in recent days, apparently in retaliation for the government's recapture of the city of Ramadi last month.


Sitting along the bottom axis of an area that was dubbed "the triangle of death" during the sectarian strife that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iskandariyah is a confessionally mixed town that has been badly affected by violence.

Nimr's execution provoked fury in Tehran, where a mob sacked and torched the Saudi embassy and consulate on Saturday night. Saudi Arabia has now severed diplomatic ties with Iran.

Authorities in Saudi Arabia said yesterday that a civilian had been killed and an eight- year-old child wounded after a shoot-out in Nimr's home village of al-Awamiya, in the province of Qatif, where mourning ceremonies have begun for the executed sheikh.

Shia residents of Qatif have sporadically protested against what they describe as endemic marginalisation.

The mass execution of Nimr and 46 others - the largest carried out by Saudi Arabia in three and a half decades - laid bare the sectarian divisions gripping the region as demonstrators took to the streets from Bahrain to Pakistan in protest.

According to its official media, Bahrain has said it will also cut ties with Iran.

Bahrain frequently accuses Iran of being behind the long-running, low-level insurgency in the country since its majority Shiite population began protests in 2011 against Bahrain's Sunni rulers.

Russia said yesterday that it was ready to step in and help resolve the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran, according to AFP.

The incident has also illustrated the Saudi kingdom's new aggression under King Salman. During his reign, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition fighting Shia rebels in Yemen and staunchly opposed regional Shia power Iran, even as Tehran struck a nuclear deal with world powers. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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