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America's Saudi problem in its anti-IS coalition

Saudi Arabia sentenced dissident Shiite cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr to death today. That's trouble for a strategy that rests on ending sectarianism in Iraq.

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    A Bahraini man cycles past images of jailed Shiite political activists, including Saudi Sheik Nimr al-Nimr (far l., r., and 3rd r.), Bahrainis Abdul Wahab Hussein (2nd l.), and Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja, Oct. 15.
    Hasan Jamali/AP
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Following two years in jail, most of that time in solitary confinement, Saudi Arabia sentenced dissident Shiite cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr to death today for leading demonstrations and "inciting sectarian strife." Mr. Nimr's predicament – and that of at least 5 other Shiite activists Saudi Arabia has sentenced to death this year – illustrates a problem for the US strategy for taking on the so-called Islamic State in Iraq.

The Obama administration believes that a non-sectarian government in Iraq is the key answer to the country's problems. There's little doubt that the Shiite dominated politics that emerged after the US invaded Iraq in 2003 has fueled support for IS among the country's Sunni Arabs.

But with country's like Saudi Arabia in the coalition the US is trying to build against IS, you have one of the greatest forces for sectarianism in the region. Nimr has long been an influential figure among Saudi Arabia's repressed Shiite minority, who are concentrated in the country's oil-rich east. 

“The death sentence against Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr is part of a campaign by the authorities in Saudi Arabia to crush all dissent, including those defending the rights of the Kingdom’s Shi’a Muslim community,” Said Boumedouha, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program, said in a statement. "The shocking death sentence against Sheikh al-Nimr followed by the arrest of his brother in court today illustrate the lengths Saudi Arabia will go to in their quest to stop Shi’a activists from defending their rights. Sheikh al-Nimr must be released and Saudi Arabia must end its systematic discrimination and harassment of the Shi’a community."

With allies like this, and ongoing close military ties between the US and Saudi Arabia, it's hard for President Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry to convince Iraq's Shiite leaders that they're taking their interests to heart.

Saudi prosecutors over the summer argued that Nimr should be beheaded – the typical form of execution in the Kingdom – and then crucified in a public square for the crime of "speaking against God." However, if the sentence is carried out, it appears the crucifixion isn't currently planned.

Saudi Arabia has beheaded at least 41 people so far this year, and by no means all of those killed were murderers themselves. Four members of a family were beheaded in August for smuggling hashish. That same month, a woman was executed for practicing "sorcery."

Toby Craig Jones, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Rutgers, wrote about Nimr and his significance to the country's Shiites in 2008:

In addition to the diplomatic response by the 85 activists, there has also been a surge of hostility in some circles. The Shi`a cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who has long rejected the willingness of figures such as Hassan al-Saffar and Jaafar al-Shayib to work within the political system for the amelioration of Shi`a grievances, recently stated publicly that “we stand with Iran, heart and soul, and with all our resources." While al-Nimr’s harangue was directed at the United States and American hostility toward Iran, it should also be read as a response to the unwillingness of the Saudi regime to address the endemic sectarianism inside the kingdom as well as a signal that the moderation that has dominated Saudi Shi`a politics since the early 1990s is under fire from within the community. Al-Nimr declared that “we fear no one, be they regimes, arrogant powers, or mercenary pens.”

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