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Viewing cable 08MANAMA49, ASHURA IN BAHRAIN

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
08MANAMA49 2008-01-27 14:02 2011-02-18 21:09 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Manama
VZCZCXRO2126
PP RUEHDE RUEHDIR
DE RUEHMK #0049/01 0271419
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 271419Z JAN 08
FM AMEMBASSY MANAMA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 7559
INFO RUEHZM/GULF COOPERATION COUNCIL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RHBVAKS/COMUSNAVCENT  PRIORITY
RHMFISS/HQ USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL PRIORITY
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 MANAMA 000049 
 
SIPDIS 
 
SIPDIS 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/27/2018 
TAGS: PGOV KISL KIRF PHUM ASEC IR BA
SUBJECT: ASHURA IN BAHRAIN 
 
REF: A. 07 MANAMA 1118 
     B. 07 MANAMA 1113 
C. 07 MANAMA 1112 
D. 07 MANAMA 1110 
E. 07 MANAMA 1109 
F. 07 MANAMA 1105 

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

 ------- SUMMARY -------

1.(SBU) Summary: Commemoration of Ashura drew into Manama hundreds of thousands of Shi'a from Bahrain and other Gulf countries. Mainstream Shi'a leaders succeeded in keeping the streets free of provocative political symbols or protests over the man who died in last month's rioting. End summary. --------------------------------------------- -------- SHI'A MARK ASHURA PEACEFULLY; AVOID POLITICAL SYMBOLS --------------------------------------------- --------

2.(SBU) An estimated 200-250,000 people crowded into the narrow streets of central Manama January 18 for the eve of tenth Muharram - Ashura - and commemorations of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at Karbala in 680 AD. Participants in Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Emirati dress were numerous. The processions were peaceful and emboffs observed a good-natured atmosphere in which ma'tams - societies of Shi'a laymen - passed out tea and sweets to the crowds. The police cordoned off the area to control automobile traffic, but remained outside the perimeter.

3.(SBU) Shi'a clerics, and leaders of the ma'tams who organized the processions, worked closely with government authorities and their own memberships to keep politics out. Both government authorities and Shi'a community leaders had been concerned that the Al-Haq movement, which most here view as connected to December's street violence, might use the occasion of Ashura to instigate a new round of unrest with protests over the death of Ali Jassim Mekki (reftels). In the event there was no trouble. Al-Haq did set up shop outside the Al-Khawaja mosque (a longtime epicenter of Shi'a political dissent) and at three other locations seeking signatures for a petition calling for the Prime Minister's resignation. While some people were stopping to sign, response seemed to be moderate at best.

4.(SBU) Organizers succeeded again this year in ensuring that zealots did not display posters lionizing Iranian or Hizballah politicians (up through 2006 portraits of the late Ayatollah Khomeini were common). In years past, Sunni media commentators pointed to such displays during the Ashura celebration and questioned the loyalty of Bahrain's Shi'a. While Shi'a leaders managed to keep most of these displays off the streets, emboffs saw large posters of Khomeini and Khamenei inside a number of ma'tams. --------------------- MOURNING IMAM HUSSEIN ---------------------

5.(SBU) Well-organized processions of hundreds of men moved through the streets, most lightly striking their chests in mourning. Many colorful traditional features of Ashura, such as camels and riderless white horses, were included. Sheikh Isa Qassim, the spiritual leader of Bahrain's Shi'a community, led a silent procession of imams, including Al-Wifaq parliamentary bloc leader Ali Salman, through the winding streets. Spectators along the route fell silent as they noticed Qassim at the head of the group. Poloff encountered a group of 300-400 "Ajimis," Persian-origin Bahrainis, dressed in black and carrying out symbolic self-mortification with lightweight flails. The group moved in rhythm to drumbeats and a sing-song Farsi chant. Another Persian group marched with a street band. ----------------- "HAIDAR! HAIDAR!" -----------------

6.(SBU) Probably the most notorious feature of Ashura processions is "tatbir," during which parades of bare-chested men flail themselves bloody with chains or swords. This practice is becoming less common as mainstream clerics denounce the practice each year and urge Shi'a to instead donate to blood drives. Thousands of Bahrainis responded this year and donated blood at local hospitals. However, a few ma'tams still practice "tatbir" with gusto, and appeared MANAMA 00000049 002 OF 002 to do so as much out of machismo as out of devotion to the Imam Hussain. Emboffs saw several groups of 20-30 young men whipping their backs with razor-tipped flails in time to chants led by drummers and specialist Iraqi clerics; larger groups of 50-60 followed, striking their foreheads with swords to exuberant chants of "Haidar! Haidar!" A government ambulance accompanied each such group to tend to any serious injuries, and in another nod to safety, attendants repeatedly sprayed disinfectant on participants' flails and swords. ------------------------------- A RELIGIOUS AND SOCIAL OCCASION -------------------------------

7.(SBU) In addition to organizing indoor readings of the Shi'a passion followed by outdoor processions, ma'tams distributed hot food and tea on the streets, as well as groceries for the poor. An art exhibition featured Ashura-themed works promoting tolerance and unity. Volunteers sectioned off areas of the sidewalks with black cloth to create segregated viewing areas for women, but this did not deter the teens and twenty-somethings who viewed the gathering as an opportunity to see and be seen. According to FSNs, Shi'a youth use the Ashura celebration to mingle with the opposite sex. Poloff saw one teen boy toss a small, crumpled piece of paper (presumably with his mobile phone number) toward a group of four girls who giggled and moved on. ---------- CONCLUSION ----------

8.(C) Conclusion: This year's Ashura commemorations were a success due to the mainstream Shi'a leadership and the security services' low profile. Understanding that a reprise of December's unrest might jeopardize the government's liberal approach to Ashura, the Shi'a leadership worked diligently to get the message to their members that they should respect the occasion and set politics aside. At the same time, they worked closely with the government to ensure a safe and orderly event. In the end, there were no protests, no violence, and Al-Haq received only a lukewarm response to its harangues. Most attendees seemed content to enjoy the opportunity to express their Shi'a identity to the fullest. ********************************************* ******** Visit Embassy Manama's Classified Website: XXXXXXXXXXXX********************************************* ******** ERELI