Daily Israel Report

Sunni-Shiite Tensions Impact Relations Across Mideast Region

Following criticism of Bahrain's crackdown on mostly Shi'ite demonstrators by Nasrallah, the small island nation issues travel warning to Lebanon.
By Gabe Kahn.
First Publish: 3/23/2011, 6:41 PM / Last Update: 3/23/2011, 8:49 PM

Flash 90

Growing tensions between the oil-rich Sunni-ruled Arab countries and Shi'ite Iran, which is Persian and not Arab, continue to affect relationships throughout the Middle East, Reuters reports.

Following sharp criticism of Bahrain's harsh crackdown on mainly Shi'ite demonstrators last week by Iranian-proxy Hizbullah in Lebanon, the small island kingdom issues a travel advisory for its citizens instructing them not to visit Lebanon "for their own safety."

"Due to the threats and interference that Bahrain has faced from terrorist elements, it warns and advises its nationals not to travel to Lebanon because of the dangers they may face that may affect their safety, and it advises nationals in Lebanon to leave immediately," Bahrain's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Bahrain's national carrier also suspended flights to Lebanon, as it has done with Iran and Iraq, as an expression of displeasure over criticism of the crackdown in the tiny island kingdom.

The crackdown on anti-government protesters came after Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa declared a state of emergency and requested Saudi soldiers, attached to the Gulf Cooperative Council's Peninsula Shield force, to help in suppressing mass protests that threatened his regime.

The crackdown inspired sympathy protests in nations with Shi'ite populations, including Lebanon, where Hizbullah's leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused Arab states of what he described as hypocrisy for backing Bahrain's rulers while supporting the rebels in Libya.

Following Nasrallah's comments, Lebanese residents in Bahrain who were abroad found themselves banned from returning to the island Kingdom. The Lebanese ex-patriot community in Bahrain, who  issued a statement distancing themselves from Nasrallah's position, is about 1,500 strong.

The ferocity of the crackdown, which banned protests, imposed martial law and called in forces from Bahrain's fellow Sunni-ruled neighbors, has shocked the more than 60 percent of Bahrainis who are Shi'ites, most of whom are campaigning for reforms leading to a constitutional monarchy.

However, calls by some hardliners for the overthrow Bahrain's monarch have alarmed the nation's Sunnis, who believe such a move serves Iran's revolutionary machinations in the region. For its part, Iran, which backs Shi'ite revolutionary proxies in Iraq and Lebanon, complained to the United Nations and has begun a campaign urging Saudi Arabia to withdraw its troops from Bahrain.

In response, Bahrain withdrew its senior diplomats from Tehran as a sign of protest.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whose nation has become increasingly cozy with Iran in recent years, said in a joint news conference in Ankara Tuesday with Bahrain's foreign minister, said, "It is very important that the civilian population is protected and that the civilian population and security forces do not confront one another ... A sectarian clash would harm the intense process of change in the region."

Meanwhile, Bahrain's Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said: "Foreign forces are only there to protect state organs" and would be there for a "very limited" time.

Western nations, heavily reliant on the six oil-exporting members of the GCC who control half of the world's oil reserves, have issued canned responses without taking a firm position on the crackdown in Bahrain – or the involvement of foreign troops therein.

England's David Cameron said Bahrain's approach "needs to be based on the principle of reform to address the legitimate aspirations of the people of Bahrain."