Hard-line Sunni voice gains audience in Bahrain

By BRIAN MURPHY | June 24, 2011 | 11:29 AM EDT

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A visit by Bahrain's king to Sunni supporters this week was also something of a royal blessing for a rising political star: an Islamic scholar who claims the Gulf kingdom is under threat from both foe Iran and ally America.

Once consigned to the fringes, Sunni hard-liners like Addullatif al-Mahmood are suddenly gaining a receptive audience amid a government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

It's another sign of Bahrain's deeply polarized atmosphere as the kingdom's Sunni rulers try to open talks with the Shiite opposition after violence that has left 31 people dead since February.

Al-Mahmood's group appears to be tapping into deep-rooted fears over Shiite giant Iran and growing questions about commitment from Washington, which bases the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet in Bahrain.

"We won't compromise on the safety of our nation," al-Mahmood said during the Tuesday visit by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

It was a clear slap at Iran, who Bahrain's leaders and Gulf Arab allies accuse of stirring the Shiite-led demonstrations in Bahrain. He also rejected calls by some U.S. officials to cut Bahrain's special trade status following the clampdown on dissent.

"Crises don't scare us," said the king as al-Mahmood stood nearby.

Bahrain's Shiites account for about 70 percent of the island, but they have few allies in high places. They claim the Sunni ruling system is built to block Shiites from any key positions in government or security forces.

The Sunni monarchy's Western backers, led by the U.S., have denounced the unrest and harsh crackdowns. On Wednesday, eight Shiite activists were sentenced to life in prison for their roles in the unrest and next week more than 30 doctors and nurses accused of supporting the protests are due to go on trial.

But Washington and others still have not followed up with any tangible punishments against Bahrain's rulers.

At the same time, Bahrain has pushed a narrative that splits the nation into patriots or traitors. "Loyalty" books and website have been set up to publicly support the monarchy, and anyone challenging the system is branded a potential enemy of the state by official media.

This is where al-Mahmood and other Sunni hard-liners have found a new voice in Bahrain's political affairs.

Al-Mahmood's ultra-nationalist Sunni bloc failed to win parliament seats in elections last year. Now the Bahrain University lecturer is drawing new attention as he accuses Iran and Lebanese-based Hezbollah of meddling in Bahrain.

"This is a well-known fact that Iran has a project to expand its influence all over the region and dominate the Arab world," he told The Associated Press. "This is their ideology."

Washington would have few objections to that point of view. But al-Mahmood also comes down hard against the U.S., saying that American criticism of Bahrain has "made us suspicious that they also have a hand in the recent crisis."

In an interview in April with an Islamic-oriented Malaysian website, al-akham.net, al-Mahmood portrayed many Shiites as fundamentally unable to support a Sunni-ruled state.

"How can you trust them when they put up pictures of (Iranian Revolution founder Ruhollah) Khomeini ... How can the state trust them?" he was quoted as saying.

He went further, however, to claim that the U.S. is somehow supporting Iran to create a "vast Shiite state" in the Gulf and Iraq.

"The truth is there is no hostility between Iran and the U.S.," he told the website. "There are mutual interests and roles between the two."

Such claims are light-years outside the standard policy views. They do, however, shed some light on the extreme outlooks among some of those who have gained favor with Bahrain's rulers since the uprising began.

In April, Bahrain's prime minister praised al-Mahmood's National Unity Gathering group as a symbol of "everything pertaining to the nation's interest and future."

Opposition groups consider the organization a haven for hard-liners. A message on a pro-reform website called al-Mahmood the "latest weapon against the pro-democracy movement."

Officials appear to sense the Shiite unhappiness with al-Mahmood's comments. The prime minister — who praised al-Mahmood's group two months ago — requested it cancel a march last week.

On Friday, Bahrain's most senior Shiite cleric, Sheik Isa Qassim, cast doubt on the chances for talks with the government and Sunni groups — including the National Unity Gathering — that are scheduled to begin July 1.

"This is no environment for a political solution when people are suffering," he told worshippers. "We cannot see a meaningful and truthful dialogue."

Al-Mahmood declined to say whether his group would support opposition demands to weaken the Sunni leaders' hold on power.

"Everything will be addressed at the discussion table," he said.