Some Gulf Muslims are receptive to Iran claims on Mecca tragedy

The Iranian charge of United States involvement in last Friday's Mecca tragedy is finding receptive ears in this Shiite suburb of Manama. ``When Ayatollah Khomeini calls the Shiite people from here to the war, we are going straightway. We are also going to hit America as well,'' an 18-year-old Bahraini says. ``I am like a kamikaze - we are going to attack everything.''

The young Bahraini and several friends of the Muslim Shiite sect say they believe recent statements by Iranian officials - including Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - that the US played a role in causing the clash between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi Arabian security forces in Mecca.

The Mecca tragedy sent shock waves through cities and villages across the Islamic world and touched off a debate over who sparked the confrontation and who should be held responsible.

The US State Department says Iran's accusations of US responsibility are ``totally baseless, ... and the government in Tehran knows it.''

Although most Europeans and Americans may simply shrug off Iran's charge of US involvement, the comments of the Bahraini youth underscore the fact that Ayatollah Khomeini has a receptive constituency of dedicated followers within the Gulf Shiite community - even in staunchly pro-US Bahrain.

It also underscores the deep resentment that many Gulf Shiites harbor against the US as it continues on what seems to be a confrontation course with Iran.

The Shiites, a minority sect in Islam whose followers have historically been poor and powerless, look to revolutionary Iran with its Shiite majority as an emerging force in the Muslim world. The Sunnis, the rival and dominant sect, view Iran and its Shiite message as a threat. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are governed by Sunni ruling families.

In Bahrain, several Shiite residents interviewed said they look to Khomeini for inspiration and pray that Iraq is defeated in the Iran-Iraq war. ``If you want to know why, I don't know. It is in my heart. We more than love this man [Khomeini],'' a Bahraini Shiite says.

This individual, the 18-year-old, and his friends expressed their views in a small restaurant in this Shiite community west of Manama. They asked to remain unnamed out of concern that Bahrain's security forces might take action against them for their comments.

Not all Bahraini Shiites interviewed subscribe to Iran's US conspiracy theory concerning events in Mecca.

``It is between Iran and Saudi Arabia. That is it. There is no part in it for America,'' says a vegetable merchant. A young Shiite in a barber chair adds, ``Maybe it is true and maybe it is false. One can't be certain, because all the pictures on the television can be [manipulated].''

Even the basic facts of the tragedy remain unclear.

According to Saudi officials, 402 pilgrims and security men, including 275 Iranians, were killed in the clashes, and 649 people were injured. Iran says 600 Iranians are dead or missing and that 4,500 people were injured.

Iran has dispatched delegations to seven Muslim countries to argue that the Saudi royal family is unworthy and should be removed as custodian of Islam's holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina. So far, only Libya has shown support for the idea.

Saudi Arabia has countered with a diplomatic blitz of its own, winning support from Arab leaders of Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Morocco, North Yemen, Sudan, Kuwait, and Bahrain.

One of the most detailed versions of Iran's accusations against the US was aired on Tehran radio last weekend. According to the commentary, the US ordered the attack on Iranian pilgrims to distract world attention from a series of setbacks the US Navy has suffered recently in the Gulf. The US also wanted to create a climate of ``fear and intimidation'' in the region, the broadcast said.

Saudi Arabia maintains that the violence in Mecca was triggered by Iranian demonstrators who attacked security forces with knives and sticks they had hidden in their clothing. They say those killed were mostly women and old men crushed in a stampede by their fellow Iranian pilgrims running from security forces.

Iran says that if its pilgrims fought with security men, they did so in self-defense only after being provoked. Iran claims that Saudi security men first threw stones and glass from overlooking buildings as Iran's pilgrims passed below chanting political slogans. Iran also claimed that pilgrims were mowed down by Saudi machine gun fire and tear gas. The Saudis have admitted using tear gas, but deny that any shots were fired.

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