Iraq conflict reignites sectarian rivalry in Saudi Arabia


QATIF, Saudi Arabia -- The conflict in Iraq has begun to spill over to Saudi Arabia's eastern coast, breathing new life into the ancient rivalry between this country's powerful Sunni majority and the long-oppressed Shiite minority in one of the world's most oil-rich areas.

"The struggle in Iraq is echoing here," said Hassan Saffar, Saudi Arabia's most influential Shiite Muslim cleric. "Saudi Sunnis are defending Iraqi Sunnis, and Saudi Shiites are defending Iraqi Shiites. There's a fear that it will cause a struggle here."

At first, the invasion of Iraq gave optimism to Shiites here. Many felt a surge of quiet hope when U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq three years ago. Emboldened by their Iraqi brethren's escape from the torments of Saddam Hussein, Shiites here and in other Sunni-ruled nations began to demand - and win - freedoms of their own.

Bit by bit, the old rules have fallen away in recent years: Saudi Shiites won the right to publish and read sectarian literature. They can now work as journalists, build mosques and open Shiite schools to educate their sons.

But today, the sectarian power shift that seemed to open new possibilities for a long-oppressed group is beginning to look like a dangerous destabilization. Some Shiite clerics have received death threats in recent months; they have also been accused of harboring links to Iran, a longtime nemesis of the Saudi government.

Sunni and Shiite clerics across the region have begun to warn against a fitna, a severe term that refers to a civil war or division within the Islamic faith.

"Now there's a psychological war against the Shia," said Mohammed Mahfoodh, a Shiite writer here. "They criticize the Shia, accuse them of being loyal to an outside party, attack their religious beliefs and say they don't have interest in the stability of their countries."

Saudi Shiites have lived for centuries among the banana and date-palm groves where the kingdom tapers into the Persian Gulf, pushed literally and figuratively to the margins of Saudi Arabia. Unwittingly, the Shiites settled directly on top of the source of Saudi opulence; the kingdom's vast oil reserves spread below their villages.

Far from the skyscrapers of Riyadh and Jiddah, this is a very different Saudi Arabia - a place where some villagers still live in mud-brick huts, where pictures of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani are plastered on walls, where roads go unpaved and old wells pock the desert.

The people of Qatif sometimes joke that the cow is here, but the milk goes elsewhere.

"Look at all the treasures in this area, look at the oil. Qatif should be rich," said Aliya al-Fareed, a Shiite woman and member of the fledgling National Society for Human Rights. "But we can't see Qatif as a rich area. Look at our schools, look at our homes. Our young people don't have jobs, and in the 20th century we're living in houses of mud."

Shiites have a long list of grievances in Qatif. They need roads and employment opportunities. They remain underrepresented on the governing councils that are hand-picked by the royal family, and they are excluded from military and diplomatic positions. Sunnis commute from out of town to head up offices as mundane as the traffic police.

The Shiites of the east are mounting an unprecedented push for civil rights and equality, even as they find themselves increasingly tarred as traitors who are more loyal to Iran than to the kingdom they call home.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak infuriated the region's Shiites this month when he told a reporter from the Arab satellite channel Al-Arabiya that Shiites throughout the Arab world nurture deeper loyalties to Iran than to their home countries.

Mubarak was broadcasting a belief widely held among Sunni Arabs. Here in Saudi Arabia, many Sunnis insist privately that Mubarak was correct about Shiite loyalty - but, they add, he probably shouldn't have said it publicly.

"Everybody believes that Shiite Muslims are loyal to Iran more than to their own countries, but you don't say it," said Turki al-Hamad, a liberal Sunni Saudi. "I'd say 90 percent of the people in Saudi Arabia don't trust the Shiites. You can't just shake a magic stick and get rid of it."

The question of loyalty is a blurry one. A long legacy of shoddy treatment has left many Shiites nursing quiet resentments against their governments. Shiite political leaders generally know better than to advertise anti-government sentiments at a time when they're pushing for equality, but animosity often lurks just below the surface.

"I was born in Qatif, and I hope to die in Qatif. It's my land," said Ali Maidani, a 33-year-old Shiite. He paused, and corrected himself. "All of Saudi Arabia is my land, but the government doesn't treat me like a citizen. So, sometimes I feel that only Qatif is my land."

This long-marginalized province voted more heavily than the rest of the country last year when Saudi men were allowed to cast ballots in limited municipal elections.

"The society felt like this was their opportunity to express their existence," said Jaafar el Shayeb, a Shiite leader and one-time political exile who was elected to the municipal council in Qatif. "Now you feel they're ready and willing to participate at any opportunity."

Sunni-Shiite understanding has been deepened in recent years by the "national dialogue" - the royal family's project of arranging face-to-face conferences for Saudis of different backgrounds. The talks have drawn Shiite and Sunni clerics from around the country to discuss the future of the kingdom.

"It used to be a closed, black box. They didn't know what are the Shia, what do they want," Shayeb said. "We don't want to overthrow the government. We want equality as citizens."

Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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