Qassem Soleimani criticises Bahrain for stripping Ayatollah Isa Qassim of his citizenship, which could lead to Shia “armed resistance”, crossing a red line that could inflame the country and the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Arab League express full support for Bahrain.
Manama (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The head of the Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guards' overseas arm, the arm, has warned of armed resistance in Bahrain after the Sunni-ruled kingdom stripped a top Shia cleric of his citizenship.
For General Qassem Soleimani, Bahrain's action against Sheikh Isa Qassim could "set the region on fire".
"The al-Khalifa [rulers of Bahrain] surely know their aggression against Sheikh Isa Qassim is a red line and that crossing it would set Bahrain and the whole region on fire, and it would leave no choice for people but to resort to armed resistance," Gen Soleimani said in a statement released by the semi-official Fars news agency.
Earlier, Iran's Foreign Ministry had also criticised the move.
Iran has long championed the rights of Bahrain's Shia community against the kingdom's autocratic Sunni ruling family. It has also denied Bahrain’s accusations that it has incited violence and terrorism in the kingdom.
Announcing the move to strip him of his Bahraini citizenship, Bahraini authorities said the cleric, who claims the title of ayatollah, used his position and role to serve foreign interests as well as favour confessionalism and violence.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Arab League stand behind Bahrain’s decision.
In a statement carried by Saudi Press Agency, Saudi authorities stressed their support for Bahrain and its efforts against extremism and terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.
Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi said his organisation supported Bahrain’s judicial measures to regulate the activities of organisations and civil groups in order to safeguard the country’s security.
Similarly, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing its full support for Bahrain’s measures.
Meanwhile, in Bahrain’s itself, thousands of protesters have gathered near the Shia cleric’s home in a show of support, chanting slogans against King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and his government.
This has raised fears that protests could turn into riots. Bahrain's interior ministry has warned against any protests.
For analysts and local political experts, a political issue has turned into a religious dispute. The country’s rulers have chosen to up the ante to avoid losing their dominant position.
Sheikh Isa Qassim had backed protests led by the Shia community for greater civil and political rights.
Bahrain is a Gulf monarchy ruled by a Sunni dynasty in a country where the majority of the population (at least 60-70%) is Shia and want constitutional changes and social and economic rights.
In 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring, riots broke out that the king of Bahrain – a US ally supported by Riyadh – put down with Saudi military aid.
In recent weeks, the authorities have arrested and sentenced Shia activists and religious leaders and suspended the activities of Al-Wefaq, the main Shia opposition group, on charges of terrorism, extremism and violence as well as ties to a foreign power (i.e. Iran).
The new confrontation between Iran and a Gulf monarchy – combined with religious, political, and diplomatic tensions between Riyadh and Tehran – is a source of major concern in the West, especially the United States.
The US State Department said it was "alarmed" at Bahrain’s move against the Shia cleric, adding that it was "unaware of any credible evidence" to support the removal of citizenship.