Tensions in Saudi Shi'ite town over secession call

Tue Apr 14, 2009 7:53am EDT
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By Souhail Karam

AWWAMIYA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - The street graffiti is so brazenly political in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province that it hardly seems like Saudi Arabia at all.

"Down with the government," "Death to the traitors" read the messages on the walls of Awwamiya, a small town in the eastern region on the Gulf coast where most of the conservative Sunni state's Shi'ite minority lives.

The fear of landing in jail would normally curb such talk, but right now the mood in the Shi'ite region is more enflamed that normal.

Hundreds of Shi'ites have staged protests in recent weeks as police searched in vain for firebrand preacher Nimr al-Nimr, who breached a taboo to suggest in a sermon that Shi'ites could one day seek their own separate state.

The threat, which diplomats say is unprecedented since the 1979 Iranian revolution provoked anti-Saudi protests, followed clashes between the Sunni religious police and Shi'ite pilgrims near the tomb of Prophet Mohammad in the city of Medina, in the western region of the vast desert state.

"Graffiti like this underscores the fact that moderate Shi'ites are losing influence on public opinion," said Nasrallah al-Faraj, a Shi'ite from Awwamiya who is among hundreds who have signed a petition asking police to stop their search for Nimr.

"Nimr was only expressing what the majority here feels ... While the option of secession is not on the table, you cannot stop people from thinking about it," he said.

Saudi officials say Shi'ites make up less than 10 percent of the population, although diplomats believe the figure is closer to 15 percent. Most live in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy that grants no political rights.   Continued...