Muslim commemorations bring tight security in Gulf state. After Mecca tragedy, Bahrainis seek peaceful marking of Shiite festival

Bahrain security forces are on alert this week to ensure that large Shiite Muslim religious commemorations don't result in a local version of the recent tragedy in Mecca. Because of the supercharged atmosphere of religious fervor, there are concerns the commemorations might turn violent, but officials and diplomats here say Bahraini security is in control.

During the 10-day Ashura religious festival, members of the Shiite sect commemorate the martyrdom of their 7th century leader, Hussein, who died in the battle that marks the great schism between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam.

Hussein and his small army were massacred by a much larger force of Sunni Muslims in a conflict over Hussein's claim that he was the legitimate caliph, or leader of all Muslims.

In the Mecca tragedy on July 31, more than 400 Muslims died in clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security forces. The incident increased friction between the majority Sunni and minority Shiite sects of Islam.

According to a Bahraini security source who asked not to be named, security and intelligence officials are worried this year about the possibility that large numbers of Shiites from Saudi Arabia will travel over the newly opened causeway to Bahrain for the commemorations.

``The Saudi Shia are the wild card,'' this source says. ``You don't know what kind of contact they [the Bahraini Shia] have had with them and how many will come over,'' he says.

The source says that every car crossing to Bahrain is being thoroughly searched for weapons or explosives. Body searches are also being given.

During Ashura, which ends Saturday, Shiites attend sermons, young children and many adults dress in black, and most Shiite meeting places are draped with black banners.

Some Shiites conduct processions during which they whip themselves with sharp objects until their backs and heads bleed. It is a passion play in which they reenact the pain of Hussein.

Bahrain is one of the few countries in the Gulf - all but Iran are ruled by Sunni leaders or royal families - that permits the Ashura processions. They are illegal in Saudi Arabia.

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