WikiLeaks: US Embassy and Ashura in Bahrain, Crisis of Photos and Flags in 2005 (Part 1)

2016-10-27 - 3:53 p

Bahrain Mirror (Exclusive): WikiLeaks continues to disclose information whose parties would rather want it buried away and never revealed no matter what the circumstances are; from communications, statements, discussions, to visits and promises that no one knows of but the US Embassy.

A number of cables leaked by the WikiLeaks website unveiled that the US Embassy in Manama annually sends a confidential report on the commemoration of the religious Ashura occasion in Bahrain to the US Department of State.

The cables date back to the period between 2005 and 2010. The embassy was closely monitoring the Ashura commemoration events in Bahrain and regularly sending detailed reports to the State Department. The details in the cables included the number of people participating in a certain event, what Sheikh Isa Qassim and Sheikh Ali Salman said, how the Ashura speech went, and how the security situation was. They further mentioned whether there were violations, whether the United States was mentioned, what upsets and provokes these people participating in the events and how the commemoration of Ashura would affect them that particular year.

It is the type of information gathering that even the government would not detect and civil society organizations would disregard.

Coinciding with the occasion of Ashura and the Islamic Month of Muharram, Bahrain Mirror will display these dangerous documents for research purposes, aiming at analyzing how the US diplomacy works in this regard as well as how the Bahraini government deals with the US Embassy's follow up, even providing it with additional information.

In this report, we will address the black banners and pictures of Iranian and Hezbollah officials that were widely spread on the streets during Ashura in 2005. The Bahraini government stirred up a crisis out of this situation, which, as it seems, led it to make numerous communications with the US Embassy.

Cable 1: Mohammed Abdel Ghaffar describes Sheikh Isa Qassim as "agent of Iran" and worries about "dangerous" Shia government in Iraq

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What was different about the government's campaign against Ashura manifestations and celebrations in 2005 was that it was launched under the pretext that pro-Iran photographs, posters and flags were being hung and pro-Iran slogans were being chanted.

The US Embassy sent a report to the State Department on February 28, 2005 on this matter- on a meeting that was held between the US Ambassador William T. Monroe and the Bahraini Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Mohammed Abdel Ghaffar.

The latter delivered a sharp message to the US Ambassador outlining his government's deep concern about "Iranian interference in Bahrain's internal affairs," which he said reached a zenith
during recent Ashura celebrations. The cable further mentioned that the Bahraini Minister also had harsh words for Shia opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman and leading Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim, calling the latter "an agent of Iran who believes that Iran should rule everywhere in the region," adding that "he is a very dangerous man."

Abdel Ghaffar accused Iran of "using Bahrain's openness and democracy to penetrate into Shia society."  He said the Iranians were operating smartly, for the most part not going through their Embassy in Bahrain. The zenith of these activities, he said, came during Ashura. He further claimed that there are Shia who politicized the religious celebrations for their own gain, citing as examples Sheikh Ali Salman and Sheikh Isa Qassim. Elaborating on the politicization of the event, he stressed that, during Ashura, pictures of the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran Imam Khomeini and the current Iranian Supreme Leader Sayyed Khamenei proliferated in
Shia villages, "more and larger than usual, he said."

"Even more worrisome, camps were set up to offer ideological training to youth," the minister said, calling these camps "very dangerous." He said that Bahraini authorities found in the camps Hizbollah logos as well as numerous American and Israeli flags drawn on the ground for people to stomp on.

He also expressed concern that the Shia governments in Iraq and Iran could be a dangerous development for Bahrain.

The cable considered that Abdel Ghaffar's strong demarche reflected concerns of his superiors and worries about the potential Shia threat in the region, adding that it underscores the cross-cutting reactions in Bahrain, a Shia-majority country run by a Sunni royal family, as it faces the new reality in Iraq. On the other hand, it said that there are already signs that the successful election in Iraq is helping push Shias who boycotted the last election in Bahrain "into giving serious consideration to voting in the 2006 elections," deeming it a positive development for the government.

Cable 2: Mohammed bin Mubarak says Iranian hand is more evident during Ashura and Khamenei is a political not religious leader

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On March 8, 2005, while Bahrainis commemorated Ashura during the Islamic Months of Muharram and Safar, the Embassy sent a cable about a meeting (or communication) between the US Ambassador and the Bahraini Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, during which they discussed the issue of the photographs and slogans raised during Ashura.

Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khalifa told the Ambassador on March 7 that Minister of Interior Rashed bin Abdullah Al Khalifa briefed members of Parliament on March 6 on what he described as "Iranian interference in Bahrain's Ashura celebrations."

Mohammed bin Mubarak said that "the Iranian hand was much more evident during Ashura celebrations this year than in previous years." He also said that Sheikh Isa Qassim spoke publicly flanked by large photographs of Khomeini, Khamenei, and even Hizballah Secretary General Nasrallah.  Bodyguards were posted around Qassim as if he were a political, not religious, figure, he added.

He further stated that in the past, the Shia had kept the photos inside their Ma'tams; this year they were everywhere,claiming that the Shia had tried to "blanket" Bahrain with black flags. The cable added a comment stating: (Many black flags were placed in intentionally provocative locations, including directly across the street from the largest Sunni mosque in the northwest of the island, in Saar.)

The cable also said that Mohammed bin Mubarak claimed that several Bahraini Shia had come to the government to complain about Iranian interference in the celebrations. He said "they protested imposition on Bahrainis of the concept of the "velayat-e faqih," or rule by the jurisprudent," the doctrinal basis for Iran's clerical rule. Bin Mubarak said, "Khamenei is not
a religious leader; he is a political leader. He is commander-in-chief of the Iranian army."

The Foreign Minister expressed his concern that extremists are abusing Bahrain's freedom. Iranians were using agents to incite people, hoping to create a "fifth column" inside Bahrain, he said. "The government had to react now before things became worse. Bahrain had faced similar
challenges before, from communists and Baathists."

He warned that these activities could allow extremists to "hatch" terrorism inside Bahrain. He said that in Muharraq (a district to the east of Manama), Sunnis and Shias almost had a clash over the placement of flags and other religious symbols in sensitive locations.

The cable further noted that the Bahraini Minister complained that the administrators of the Bahrain On-Line website who were detained in late February were trying to stir up trouble.

Cable 3: The Bahraini government hasn't developed a policy to deal with potential full
empowerment of Shia community

On March 9th, the US Embassy sent another report entitled "GOB (Government of Bahrain) Reacts to Outward Signs of Shia Activism during Ashura Observances"

The report said that the GOB launched a public and private campaign complaining of "Iranian interference in Bahraini affairs and attempts to sow sectarianism in Bahrain."  It added that the Interior Minister said publicly that "some people spread hate messages during mid-February Shia Ashura celebrations by chanting slogans and hanging posters inciting divisions within Bahraini society."

The report noted that Bahrain is the only GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) country that permits widespread public Ashura processions. The means of celebrating the holiday in Bahrain varied depending on the participants' school of thought, but those who cut themselves are a very small minority in the country's Shia community, it added. "The processions allow the Shia to push the envelope of public expression."

The Embassy considered that the Bahraini government could well be right that Iran is fomenting activism in the Shia community, "but another source of Shia empowerment and public confidence is undoubtedly the Shia success in Iraq's elections."

"The GOB encourages the participation of all sectors of society in its political system, but it may not be ready to deal with an increasingly assertive Shia population," and "has not yet developed a policy to deal with the potential full empowerment and possible political success of the Shia community."

The report also said that the Bahraini government "could be laying down markers that it
will permit a Shia renaissance to go only so far."

The report further spoke in detail of the measures taken by the Bahraini Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa that reflect the government's frustration towards the events taking place during Ashura. The US Embassy also described in detail the long tradition of Ashura observances, based on its own understanding of these Shia religious rites.

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Cable 4: Between the Interior Minister and Sayed Abdullah Al-Ghuraifi, between pens and flags

On March 20th, the Bahraini Interior Minister Rashed bin Abdullah Al Khalifa discussed the same Ashura events with the US Ambassador William T. Monroe, and the US Embassy sent a report on this discussion in a cable addressed to the US State Department.

Showing photographs, taken during Ashura, of Hizballah flags, Khomeini and Khamenei 

posters, and a group of Bahrainis stomping on an American flag, the Bahraini Minister said that "there was definitely a greater political edge to this year's Ashura activities," although only a minority of Shia were involved in activities of concern, noted the Embassy in the cable.

The Interior Minister described for the Ambassador the Bahraini "government's concern that the Sunni-Shia split would grow in Bahrain if decisive action were not taken against Shia political activism during recent Ashura celebrations," further discussing "his personal efforts to
control Shia extremism in Bahrain."

The cable stated that Rashid bin Abdullah "personally met with leading Shia cleric Al-Ghuraifi, trying to gain his support. Al-Ghuraifi, for his part, asked the Minister to control anti-Shia
articles/editorials in the press."

The cable added that the Bahraini Minister also met with Sunnis, who he said were concerned that black flags (representing Shia mourning during Ashura) had suddenly
popped up everywhere. The Minister claimed that some Shia were "using Ashura as a political opportunity." He said the Ministry received numerous calls, including from some Shia, asking what the government was going to do in response. "The Sunnis expected the government to take some action, or they would act themselves," he added. However, the Minister alleged that he had "spent the previous evening visiting Sunni majlises in the Al-Hidd area, trying to calm emotions and make sure they did not take any actions against Shia."

On a strange note, the cable mentioned that the Minister said "Bahrain did not want to follow the example of Saudi Arabia, which waited too long before acting decisively against extremism (Sunni)."  And if the government waited too long, "there would be a Sunni reaction against the Shia." The best strategy, he said, was for the Shia leadership to take care of the problem themselves. The Minister, who expressed confidence that the problem was manageable, also claimed that "his Ministry was making an effort to bring more Shia into the police force."

The US Embassy said that the Interior Minister "has played a prominent public role in his government's effort to deal with the issue," meeting with members of the two houses of the Parliament, conferring with leaders of Shia "matams" (assembly halls), and calling on Shia cleric Sheikh Abdulla Al-Ghuraifi.  He described Sheikh Al-Ghuraifi as positive and understanding of what the government was trying to do.  "He appreciated my visit.  He is proud to be a Bahraini, and believes that unity is important."  But Sheikh Al-Ghuraifi also expressed concern to the Minister that the government was letting the story get too big in the newspapers, the cable noted. The cable added that "he asked the Minister to control press articles/editorials critical of the Shia."  The Minister said he could not control the press but, playing on the similarity of the Arabic words for flag (alam) and pen (qalam), told Al-Ghuraifi that it is a question of flag and
pen. "If you raise Hizbollah flags, pens will rise. If you want the pens to stop, bring down the flags."

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The cable further noted what was mentioned in press reports what Sheikkh Al-Ghuraifi said in his Thursday night (March 18) prayer sermon at Imam Sadiq Mosque, in which he stated that unity, security, and stability are red lines that cannot be crossed, and rejected any behavior that harmed those concepts.

The cable added that he then warned against "pens" of "incitement and treason" that take advantage of events to cause enmity between people, and incite the regime against a major and
loyal sect in society.  He called on the government to stop these "pens," warning of a disaster if they continued to write. He said the Minister of Interior had invited him to the Ministry, and his acceptance would depend on "how much change we see on the ground."

The Embassy saw that the Interior Minister, overall, thought the problem was manageable. There are extremists on both sides, he said, and they need to be controlled on both sides.

According to the cable, the Ambassador asked about hiring practices in the Ministry of Interior, noting that he had heard complaints of underrepresentation of Shia. The cable further stated that the Minister said that the police force is now trying to set an example in recruiting from both sides. In an incoming class of police officers last month, he stated, 39 out of 40 were Shia. Another time, he said, Bahrain's municipalities put out an announcement to hire community service police. He claimed large numbers of Shia showed up, expecting not to be hired but to embarrass the government by making a point about unemployment. When several were in fact hired, he alleged, they went back to their villages complaining that they were "stuck" because they now had jobs they didn't want with the community police.

Cable 5: Red and white flags waved in pro-reform demonstration

On March 28, 2005, the US Embassy sent a cable to the US State Department that included a report on a peaceful pro-reform demonstration held on March 25th. The Embassy said that the leading Shia opposition political society Al-Wefaq "defied the Ministry of Interior's decision to refuse to permit a demonstration and led several thousand people in a rally calling for constitutional reforms."

This demonstration was held in the same period that witnessed the "flags and photos" crisis, at the end of the Month of Muharram and during the Month of Safar of that year. The cable said in a paragraph entitled, "red and white the colors of the day" that the head of Al-Wefaq Sheikh Ali Salman, "prior to the protest, in response to the government's public statements of alarm about the Ashura celebrations in mid-February, urged participants to refrain from carrying any foreign flags, photos or slogans."

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The cable further noted that the dominant colors of the march were the red and white of the Bahraini flag.

Arabic Version    


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