Cablegate: Bahrain's Shia Political Leaders Visit Iraq

DE RUEHMK #0557/01 2571420
R 141420Z SEP 09

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 MANAMA 000557


E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/14/2019


Classified By: Ambassador Adam Ereli, for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1.(C) Summary: During a 5-day visit, the leaders of Bahrain's Shia opposition discussed national reconciliation and political participation with Iraq's religious and political leadership. The Bahraini parliamentarians felt particularly welcome in Iraq and expect bilateral ties to strengthen. End summary.

2.(C) Seven leaders of Wifaq, Bahrain's mainstream Shia opposition party, visited Iraq September 3-8, to convey their condolences to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) on the death of Abdulaziz Al Hakim and to meet with Iraqi political and religious leaders. (The Iraqi parliament arranged security and logistics for the delegation, led by Wifaq's General Secretary Ali Salman, and helped set up meetings that included PM Nouri Al Maliki, VP Tariq Hashimi, Speaker of the Parliament Iyad Samarrai, Deputy Speaker Khalid Attiya, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and ISCI's new president Amar Al Hakim.) Jasim Husain, a member of Bahrain's parliament for Wifaq who was part of the delegation and is well known to post, briefed Ambassador September 10 after returning to Manama.

3.(C) Maliki told the delegation that Da'wa had not joined the National Iraqi Alliance because he believed the coalition would be too sectarian. His stated priority was to promote national reconciliation. He believed himself to be in the best position to do that. The Kurds continue are viewed as separatists; the Sunnis want to restore their national leadership, which leaves Shia politicians as the best qualified to lead Iraq's reconciliation, provided they put national interests before sectarian ones.

4.(C) Maliki was vociferous on the subject of Syria and repeated his assertions that the GOI has evidence linking Syria with a number of attacks inside Iraq. Maliki added his view that Baathists by ideology are both ambitious and aggressive. He told the Bahrainis that he had decided to press the Syrians despite Sistani's concerns that it was risky to do so. Husain commented that Maliki came across as far more concerned about Syria and Saudi Arabia than Iran.

5.(C) The Iraqi political leaders with whom the Wifaq delegation met all shared their thoughts on the upcoming parliamentary elections. In separate meetings, Maliki, Hashimi, and Samarrai each lamented that Iraq had no national leaders; rather, the current crop of parliamentarians focused on their communities' interests at the expense of the national interest. Husain told us that Samarrai expressed concern that the current parliament had done little to advance national reconciliation and feared that the new parliament would not be radically different. Samarrai had come to accept sectarianism as a fact of life in the parliament, and noted that the problem was compounded by the fact that many MPs were isolated from their constituents because of security concerns.

6.(C) Several of Wifaq's interlocutors compared Iraq's problems to those of Bahrain. Maliki told them that Wifaq could learn a lot from Baghdad, and that the challenges were similar. Hashimi observed that Iraq's problems mirrored Bahrain's: control of each country was in sectarian hands. Sistani's Advice on Bahraini Elections --------------------------------------

7.(C) Meeting with Grand Ayatollah Sistani and his son, Mohammed Redha, in Najaf, the delegation received guidance on continued participation in the political process. (Note: Wifaq participated in Bahrain's 2006 parliamentary elections; other Shia factions continue to call for a boycott until the present constitution is revised. End note.) According to Husain, Sistani told the Wifaqis that political participation should be the norm, provided that both religious leaders and a majority of the community concurred that the atmosphere was "correct." This caveat appeared to be a departure from Sistani's message to a Wifaq delegation in February, when he reportedly told them that Shia should participate in local politics without reservations. Ayatollah Ishaq Al Fayad told the delegation that their platform should be nationalist, not Shia, and with no hidden agenda.

8.(C) Comment: Despite Sistani's more nuanced guidance on political participation, we have seen no signs from Wifaq that it may withdraw from the process. All indications to this point are that the party will contest the 2010 parliamentary elections. Hussain opined that Sistani's MANAMA 00000557 002 OF 002 guidance could be interpreted as giving the party leadership the leeway they need to counter those in the Haq and Wafa' Movements who have called for another boycott in 2010. With the majority of Bahrain's Shia population behind Wifaq, the party could use Sistani's message to bolster its argument that continued participation in politics is appropriate and approved at the highest levels of the clerical hierarchy.

9.(C) Comment continued: The Wifaq visit the underlines the return of Najaf and Karbala to their traditional roles as centers of religious and political guidance for Bahraini Shia. (They also visited the holy shrine in Samarra, and Hussein was visibly moved by the experience.) Although many Bahraini Shia clerics had to study in Qom during the Saddam Hussein regime, several prominent Shia have told us that they feel more comfortable with their fellow Arab Shia in Iraq. The Bahraini Shia welcome their renewed access to Najaf and Karbala - there are now three airlines offering Bahrain-Iraq service (reftel), and we expect links between the two Shia-majority countries will continue to grow. ERELI

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