Saudi Forces Killed Arresting Suspects in Attack on Shiites

Saudi Arabia said two security personnel were killed in nationwide arrest raids after gunmen attacked a Shiite religious celebration in the oil-rich east.

The security force members were killed while detaining suspects in Buraidah in the central Qassim region, one of six cities where arrests were made yesterday, the official Saudi Press Agency said, citing an Interior Ministry spokesman it didn’t identify. Three suspects was killed in clashes with security forces and a total of 15 have been detained, the news service said today.

The operation followed a Nov. 3 attack by masked gunmen against Shiites in the village of al-Dalwah, hundreds of miles east of Buraidah. Al Arabiya said the death-toll stood at seven, with 10 people wounded.

Saudi Arabia is participating in a U.S.-led military campaign against Islamic State, the al-Qaeda breakaway group that has seized large parts of Syria and Iraq and used social media to recruit Saudis. Security forces and top Saudi religious scholars have stepped up efforts to prevent citizens from joining the group abroad and are arresting supporters at home.

Saudi Arabia’s Tadawul All Share Index, the Arab world’s largest bourse, fell 2.7 percent as of 12:43 p.m. in Riyadh, taking a two-day decline to 6.2 percent since the attack in al-Dalwah.

‘Sectarian Trouble’

Islamic State has targeted Shiite Muslims in Iraq and Syria. The Shiites are a minority group in Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, where they complain of discrimination by authorities.

The attack, which took place during the Shiite festival of Ashoura, “is clearly intended to incite further violence,” Paul Sullivan, a Middle East specialist at Georgetown University in Washington, said by e-mail. “The people who do these things at these sensitive moments seem to want to start the Sunni-Shia conflict that so many are sure is coming.”

Al-Dalwah is located in the Eastern Province, which is home to some of the world’s largest oil fields, including Ghawar. The oil field owned by Saudi Arabian Oil Co. has a production capacity of about 5.8 million barrels a day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The gunmen targeted a ceremonial hall known as a Husseiniya in the village, according to Tawfiq AlSaif, a prominent activist from the province. “They entered the main gate” and fired at the congregation “before they fled,” he said by phone yesterday.

Top Saudi clerics, who follow the kingdom’s strict Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, mostly reject practices performed by Shiites. There have been clashes in the Eastern Province in the past between police and local protesters.

‘Ugly Crime’

Iraq’s conflict and Syria’s civil war had raised concerns among Shiites that they will be targets for attacks by Sunni extremists even before Islamic State’s latest onslaught in the two countries, according to Shiite activists. “There are a lot of Takfiri calls” now against Saudi Shiites, AlSaif said, citing a term used to describe a non-believer.

There is a “well-organized” Twitter campaign “with a clear anti-Shiite message,” said Fahad Nazer, a political analyst at JTG Inc., a consultancy based in Vienna, Virginia. Shiite clerics in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere are being accused “of fomenting violence against Sunnis,” he said.

The kingdom’s senior Sunni Muslim scholars described the attack as an “ugly crime,” SPA reported. Hashem al-Salman, a Shiite cleric, urged Shiites in an online statement to avoid actions that “raise sectarian tension.”

The response was a “very positive and necessary move,” said Nazer, who has worked for the Saudi Embassy in Washington. “Similar future attacks could adversely affect the social fabric of the the kingdom and could lead some to reevaluate Saudi Arabia’s widely-praised counter-terrorism efforts.”

Different Threat

Saudi security forces cracked down on al-Qaeda militants after extremists started targeting foreign nationals and government officials from 2003, including bombing two residential compounds in the capital.

The al-Dalwah attack may represent a different kind of security threat, according to Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center.

“The problem is that you may have small groups emerging, two or three people coming together, with no link to a larger organization, because of events in Iraq and Syria,” he said by phone. “This is very difficult to deal with.”

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