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Rift over Shiites is seen in Bahrain's royal court

July 07, 2007|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

MANAMA, BAHRAIN — Leading members of Bahrain's royal family have thrown their weight behind hard-line Sunni Muslim groups, some of whom share the outlook of Al Qaeda, in an attempt to counter a perceived Shiite threat, government officials and critics say.

The strategy, first exposed in a government report that surfaced last year, has revealed a rift within the court of the ruling Khalifa family.

One faction believes in reconciliation with the Persian Gulf nation's disenfranchised Shiite Muslim majority. The other believes in suppressing Shiite aspirations, even if it means supporting Sunni groups propelled by the same ideologies that inspire Osama bin Laden.

A ranking government official who is a member of the royal family said there was "no doubt" that a hard-line movement existed within the Bahraini power structure.

"Then, there are the moderates who believe that cohesion is the way to go forward," he said.

The official, who counts himself among the moderates, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Members of the royal family are unanimous in public, and analysts say they rarely discuss internal rifts.

But Bahrain, a small, oil-rich nation of 750,000 people where the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet is based, is anything but united.

It rests uneasily on the increasingly volatile sectarian fault line rattling the Middle East. Impoverished Shiites, some of whom share close religious and cultural ties to Iran, demand more power from the dominant Sunnis, who have ties to Saudi Arabia. Intermarriage between the sects has become rare. Bahrain's Shiites and Sunnis have different last names and speak Arabic with different accents.

Crown Prince Salman ibn Hamed Khalifa, a 37-year-old graduate of American University in Washington and Cambridge University in England, leads the moderates, who have focused on creating job opportunities for Bahrain's young as a way of staving off sectarian tensions. Khalid ibn Ahmed Khalifa, minister of state for royal court affairs, is known as the leader of the hard-liners.

Few know where King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa, the ultimate authority in Bahrain, stands.

"The royal court minister is backed by the Sunni extremists and he backs them," said one Bahraini analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's a very dangerous game. They're going down a slippery road."

Even opposition figures say that the most extreme of their nation's Sunnis are moderate compared with Al Qaedainspired insurgents fighting governments in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan. One Sunni hard-liner has said he welcomes the presence of American and British military officials in Bahrain if it keeps the Iranian influence at bay.

Yet secular and Shiite Bahrainis have become alarmed by the growth of Sunni fundamentalism.

Figures allied with the Muslim Brotherhood or more extreme groups have gained the upper hand over the ministries of information, finance and large parts of the military, government critics and human rights groups say. Banks owned by Muslim charities or organizations have grown rich with the return of Arab funds from the United States and Europe after the increased post-Sept. 11 scrutiny of Persian Gulf money in the West. Islamic charities have morphed into powerful political groups, with the government's encouragement, critics say.

Some likened the rapid buildup of Sunni groups to the U.S. and Saudi support for Islamist Afghan warriors during the 1980s Soviet occupation.

"This is the Saudi Frankenstein," said Ebrahim Sharif Alsayed, a member of the National Democratic Action Society, a secular opposition group. "I don't think terrorism is a serious threat. But this is the same play. They think they can manage the Islamists."

Critics worry that in a country long a bastion of relative moderation, clerics are glorifying holy war. Islamic newspapers have grown more strident and anti-American. One, Akhbar Khaleej, refers to Bin Laden as a "sheik," a title of honor.

Two controversial Sunni figures who left the United States have found refuge and employment in Bahrain: Wagdy Mohammed Ghoneim, the head of an Orange County mosque who was suspected of giving speeches in support of terrorist organizations and arrested in November 2004 on suspicion of overstaying his U.S. visa; and Salah Soltan, a scholar.

"Every week they appear on television, telling people how to be clean and religious and pious," said one journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Evidence of government support for Sunni extremists first emerged in a report prepared by former government official Salah Bander, which detailed ties between regime officials and hard-liners as part of a plan to crush Shiite aspirations.

Sunnis' fear of the country's Shiite majority has been heightened by events in Iraq, where newly empowered Shiites rule over the once-dominant Sunni minority.

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