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Government and Wahhabism to blame for attack on Shiites in Saudi Arabia: activists

Two police officers were killed in a gun battle after armed men killed seven Shiite worshippers in the Eastern Province
Upwards of 100,000 people took part in Qatif's Ashura procession on Tuesday (Twitter/@AliAlAhmed_en)

Tens of thousands of people took part in an Ashura procession in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province on Tuesday, with emotions high after at least seven Shiite worshippers were gunned down and killed on Monday night.

Activists in the mainly Shiite province told MEE the unprecedented attack was the result of government discrimination and accused Wahhabi clerics of being responsible for spreading sectarian hatred in the Gulf state.

“What happened is very sad for all Saudi Arabia, except the Wahhabis who have called for this kind of attack for many years,” said Ali Adubaisy, a human rights activist from the Eastern Province. “Wahhabis have preached ‘if you kill Shiites that’s a good thing. God will thank you’.”

“Yesterday we saw the religious rhetoric of Wahhabism translated into action.”

Wahhabism is an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam practiced mostly in the Gulf states.

Seven people have been confirmed dead after gunmen attacked a Shiite mosque in the village of al-Dalwa at around 11.30pm local time (2030 GMT) on Monday night, according to local residents who said the death toll may rise further with “eight or nine people still in a critical condition”.

Three children were among the dead – aged between nine and 13 – activists said, as well as four men. Local media also reported that two police officers as well as two “terrorists” had been killed in the security operation that followed.

“The police knew an attack was coming,” said Mohammed al-Saeedi, a local resident. “The security forces had been on their highest alert for the past three or four days. But because Shiites were targeted the government did nothing – there was no protection in place for the Shiite places.”

“Just three hours before the accident authorities told the leaders in Qatif: ‘be careful – tell everyone to watch out for unknown people’ – they didn’t mention a terrorist attack but told us to beware. Then the shooting happened,” he said.

A senior member of Saudi Arabia's highest religious body - the Ulema Council - has denounced the killings and called on citizens to "stand united against the criminals".

On Tuesday an estimated 100,000 people went to Qatif’s “Revolution Street” to commemorate Ashura, which marks the death of Imam Hussein, one of Shiite Islam’s most revered figures.

The crowds held aloft banners with images of those killed in al-Dalwa, as well as of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr a prominent cleric recently sentenced to death for his role in anti-government protests in Qatif since 2011.

Local resident Saeedi told MEE security forces lined Tuesday’s procession in an effort to calm a tense situation.

“They didn’t want to aggravate the crowds because this would cause trouble,” he said. “If there are any more attacks there will be more and more angry people out on the streets demanding the government to protect them.”

“That’s why the security forces were at the Ashura procession – to calm the situation.”

Other activists in the oil-rich Eastern Province told MEE Wahhabism is not the sole reason the attack happened and said the government in Riyadh has done nothing to reign in rising sectarian divisions in the kingdom.

“The government doesn’t just discriminate against the Shiites, they are also silent on the abuses and hatred against us,” said Waleed Sulais, a human rights activist in Qatif. “A lot of religious people, writers, and media personalities speak against Shiites. They speak publicly and directly about Shiites, connecting all opposition – regardless of where they are – with being a conspiracy.”

“The same argument is always used: the Shiite belong to Iran, they are not Muslims, and they are unbelievers. No one is punished for their hate speech against the Shiites,” he said.

Saudi Arabia’s Shiite community make up 10 to 15 percent of the country’s 28 million population and have long argued that the government discriminates against them and violates their human rights – an accusation the government denies.

Human rights activist Sulais called on the government to pass new legislation and work to stem growing anti-Shiite sentiment.

“If you have a law that prohibits inciting hatred then it can help reduce the impact of Wahhabi rhetoric – that is what we have missed here in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“We request the rule of law to be respected, for the government to end discrimination against Shiites, and to implement a law criminalising hate speech.”

Saudi authorities responded to Monday’s attack in Dalwa by pursuing the attackers, who attempted to escape across the desert to the border with Qatar before being apprehended.

Saeedi said people are convinced the gunmen were supporters of the Islamic State (IS), who have seized large swathes of Iraq and Syria in recent months.

“The attack was definitely done by supporters of Daesh [another name for IS],” he said. “Last night on Twitter – after the attack – some people posted the Daesh black flag and said ‘soon it [IS] will be here in Saudi Arabia’.”

Fifteen people have been arrested in connection with the attack, according to a police statement on Tuesday that said security operations had been carried out in Shaqraa, central Saudi Arabia, as well as in the eastern al-Ahsa and Khobar regions.

Saudi Arabia has played a leading role in the US-led anti-IS coalition that has carried out airstrikes against the IS militant group in Syria and Iraq. Domestically the government has encouraged top religious leaders to speak out against IS, in order to stem the flow of Saudi fighters to the group.

A report by independent journalist Zaid Benjamin in October said over two months 45 percent of suicide bombers in Iraq were Saudi nationals. Out of 31 attacks 14 were carried out by Saudis, according to the Washington-based journalist.

In Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province Tuesday’s Ashura procession passed off peacefully. There will be three more days of smaller processions to mark the Shiite religious commemoration.