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9 Jul, 2012 12:11

Saudi shootout and crackdown: Two dead as police squash Shia rally

Two people were reportedly shot dead and two more were wounded after police dispersed a Shia Muslim rally in Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets chanting anti-government slogans following the arrest of a popular Shia cleric.

Riot police cracked down on a demonstration in the eastern Saudi Arabia town of Qatif, populated mostly by Shia Muslim believers. The protests were sparked after police had earlier engaged in a shootout and a car chase with a popular Shia cleric who has been reportedly arrested with a gunshot wound. The protesters were allegedly calling for the fall of the ruling Saudi monarchy.Sheikh Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr and his followers exchanged fire with police and got into an accident with a police car, the official Saudi Press Agency reports Al-Nimr was shot in the thigh, the agency says, and was arrested on charges of instigating unrest in the Eastern Province famous for its oil reserves. Sheikh Nimr's brother insists the cleric was just returning from his farm in Qatif.

Sheikh Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr is a prominent Saudi Shia religious leader. He is known as a fierce critic of the  Sunni government over its alleged discrimination against the two million Shia minority in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabian Shias are prevented from taking high-ranking posts in the governmetn and security forces.The Sheikh is on the government black list for statements demanding more rights for the Shia community, the release of political prisoners and corruption-curbing measures. "He had been wanted by the interior ministry for a couple of months because of his political views,” Sheikh Nimr's brother told Al-Jazeera.He also said that Sheikh Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr was previously detained for several days in 2004 and 2006.The protesters believe that persecution of their religious leader exposes Sunni plans to escalate the conflict.The last demonstrations of a similar scale in Saudi Arabia occurred over half a year ago, when at least six protesters were shot dead. After those protests, in January 2012, police arrested 22 Shias, placing the responsibility for the unrest squarely at their feet. The Shia opposition remains the only considerable obstacle in the domestic political life for the ruling Sunni Muslim dynasty in the world's biggest oil exporter.

‘Far behind Syria’

Riyadh is far from the ideology it preaches, says Professor Ibrahim Alloush, a political analyst from the Zaytouneh University in Jordan.“Saudi Arabia is not only supplying arms [to Syrian rebel forces], it’s also financing the Western-backed insurgency in Syria, and it has its long arm playing games in other places, including Lebanon and several countries in the Gulf as well,” he told RT.The Saudi regime is extremely supportive of the West in general, Alloush continued, and is in fact a reliable conductor of the NATO policy in the Arab World.“I think it’s really funny that they should speak about a so-called dictatorship in Syria when, you know, when we apply the same [criteria] to Saudi Arabia – [whether] it’s the elections or having different political parties, a free press, or you name it – we find that Saudi Arabia lags far behind Syria and many other countries in the region,” Professor Alloush concluded.