Cablegate: Gulf Shia Converge On Bahrain for Ashura

DE RUEHMK #0741/01 3630911
R 290911Z DEC 09

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 MANAMA 000741


E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/29/2019

B. 08 MANAMA 49

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

1.(SBU) Summary: Tens of thousands of Arab and Persian Shia from around the Gulf crowded into central Manama December 26-27 to commemorate Ashura. As is traditional, community leaders ensured that politics took a back seat to popular piety. A small crowd of about three hundred heard a Shia fringe movement denounce alleged GOB "political naturalization" and government corruption. End summary. ---------------------------------- SHIA COMMEMORATE ASHURA PEACEFULLY ----------------------------------

2.(SBU) An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 people crowded into the narrow streets of central Manama during the night of December 26-27 to mark Ashura, the Shia commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at Karbala in 680 AD. Tens of thousands of men from Bahrain's predominantly Shia villages were joined by large contingents from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman, and South Asia. As usual, Shia community leaders worked successfully with Bahraini authorities to ensure that the emotional processions took place without incident. Aside from a few traffic police who kept vehicles out, there was no visible police presence in the warren-like streets of the Maharqa neighborhood of Manama where the main processions took place. ------------------------- BIGGER CROWDS, LESS BLOOD -------------------------

3.(SBU) Contacts agreed with Emboffs that the streets seemed even more packed than during the last few Ashuras. Emotional but organized processions ranging from hundreds down to several dozen men moved through the streets. Even the humblest groups were armed with ear-splitting sound equipment. Most of the chanting mourners struck their chests lightly with their fists; others used scary-looking but harmless ceremonial flails of light chains on their backs and chests. Emboffs observed only a few mourners who had drawn their own blood during more than three hours of processions, a marked change from recent years. (Note: Shia religious leaders have increasingly discouraged "tatbir," the practice of drawing blood with swords or heavy flails, and encouraged instead participation in the Red Crescent's Ashura blood-drive. End note.) Most of the marchers were Arab men from Bahrain's majority Shia population, but a number of processions consisted of Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Omanis; Persian-origin Bahrainis; and Shia of South Asian origin (including one procession of 75-100 Afghans, probably drawn from Bahrain's large population of expat laborers.) Several Bahraini contacts commented on the larger-than-usual number of Omani Shia who participated this year.

4.(SBU) Posters lionizing Iranian or Hizballah clerics were once common at Ashura. Since 2006, when the mainstream Wifaq party agreed to participate in elections, they have become less prominent. The few we spotted this year were pictures of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei inside tents run by ma'tams -- societies of Shia laymen. The Wifaq tent broadcast Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah's Ashura remarks. ---------------------------- A BACKSEAT FOR THE FEW WOMEN ----------------------------

5.(SBU) Men significantly outnumbered women in the streets. The women in attendance wore black abayas and headscarves, many worn in the style of a chador, and most confined themselves to specially sectioned-off areas along the main parade routes or balconies above the fray. Nevertheless, emboffs observed scores of younger, self-confident women moving among the crowd in groups of two or three -- flirting among Shia youth did not take a backseat during Ashura. --------------------- HAQ BEHAVES THIS YEAR ---------------------

6.(SBU) Although there is a consensus among mainstream Shia that the Ashura processions in downtown Manama should be kept apolitical, the radical Shia Haq movement has set up a podium each of the past few Ashuras opposite the Khawaja mosque, an epicenter for Ashura ceremonies. After midnight, a small crowd of about 300 gathered there for Haq leader Hassan MANAMA 00000741 002 OF 002 Musheima's speech. Many were curious to see whether Haq would repeat its performance during the January, 2009 Ashura when Musheima denounced King Hamad as a "gangster" and other Haqis called for revolution (ref A).

7.(SBU) In the event, Musheima seemed more restrained this year, with the notable exception of his "warning" that political naturalization might eventually lead to "civil war." (We suspect this will sound to most Sunnis more like a threat than a warning.) He pointedly expressed respect for King Hamad and denounced government corruption only in general terms - he did not name, as he has in the past, the Prime Minister, who is the usual target of such allegations. Musheima had to struggle to make himself heard over passing processions. A Musheima aide tried to rouse the crowd to chant against naturalization, but failed dismally. When the collection box appeared, the crowd dispersed quickly. -------------------- GOB: NO RESTRICTIONS --------------------

8.(C) Comment: Haq might inspire some Shia with its radical rhetoric at Ashura, but we suspect it alienates more who see it as exploiting Ashura for politics. Most Bahraini Shia value an understanding with the government that enables them to mark Ashura more lavishly than any other Shia community in the GCC. Recent years, including this year, saw weeks of planning and collaboration between the government and Shia religious leaders in the lead-up to Ashura. This cooperation produced yet another peaceable mass religious ceremony for Shia from around the region. End comment. ERELI

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