Bahraini Shiites clamor for police and military jobs

The Associated Press The dozen green-shirted police guarding a polling station during recent elections here were not native-born Bahrainis, but those they keep a wary eye on were: members of this island kingdom's Shiite Muslim majority.

Foreign Sunni Muslim police have long been a part of the landscape in Bahraini Shiite villages like Karzakan, with its fanciful gold-domed mosques and grafittied alleys where unemployed men wander.

Shiite activists allege that Bahrain's Sunni-dominated government has blocked Shiites from the country's police forces or the 10,000-man military, recruiting Sunnis from outside the country to fill positions instead of hiring Shiites.

The government denies any discrimination. But Shiites say the policy reflects the Sunnis' fear of a rebellion by the tiny country's Shiite majority against the leadership of the al-Khalifa royal family.

But many things here may soon change. Shiite candidates unleashed an electoral blitzkrieg in parliamentary elections a week ago, and the new lawmakers say they will try to replace the foreign police and military.

The government insists it does not favor Sunnis in security jobs. "These jobs are open to any citizen according to their merits," Information Minister Mohammed Abdel Ghaffar said.

"Sunni and Shiites are brothers. There is intermarriage. We have Shiites everywhere, not only in the security forces," he said. He could not give figures on the number of Shiites in the security forces.

Still, most policemen that Bahrainis encounter in the capital Manama or other towns and cities are foreign born — from South Asia, Sudan or from Arab countries, speaking Arabic that is broken or with a non-Bahraini accent.

In Karzakan, the police at the polling stations during last Saturday's election appeared South Asian. When they barked out directions to voters, their Arabic was poor. Policemen approached by an AP reporter refused to say where they were from.

"Shiites should be given the opportunity to serve," said Jasim Hussain, a Shiite economist at Bahrain University elected to parliament Saturday. "We think there should be no discrimination whatsoever on this issue."

He estimated that only a few hundred Shiites have received jobs — all low-level — among the thousands of positions in the military and police forces.

Most of the command positions are held by native-born Sunni Bahrainis, positions to which they apply. But they generally do not pursue the lower-level jobs in the forces, seen as menial.

Shiites, among whom unemployment is more widespread, are eager to take the jobs. But they say they're not getting them because of mistrust.

"There's been a feeling over a long period that Sunnis are more loyal than Shia, perhaps because the royal family is Sunni," Hussain said.

Shiites are believed to make up as much of two-thirds of Bahrain's 700,000 citizens, and they often complain they are kept out of positions of power.

In last week's first round vote, the Shiite al-Wefaq movement, which boycotted Bahrain's 2002 election, emerged with 16 of parliament's 40 seats, the best showing of any party.

Conservative Sunni Muslim candidates allied with this island kingdom's Sunni-dominated government took 13 more seats. The remaining 11 seats are to be decided in a run-off election on Saturday.

The changes in Bahrain come as Shiites have become more politically active in several parts of the Middle East, energized by U.S.-backed elections in Iraq that brought the Shiite majority to power.

Shiites, which form about 15 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, are also boosting their influence in Lebanon, with Shiite-dominated Iran providing support. Other countries with Shiite populations, especially neighboring Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, are uneasy observers of the renaissance.

In Bahrain, Shiite opposition leaders contend that foreign-born police were given Bahraini citizenship in exchange for promises to cast votes for pro-government Sunnis and skew the demographic balance in the country.

The government has denied the allegation.

"How are these strange people going to protect us?" Fatima Haroon, 27, said of the police as she participated in an anti-government demonstration in Manama last week. "We want Bahraini Shiites to protect us."

"We are the majority in this country,"she said, cloaked in a tight-fitting black gown and headscarf. "We need our rights."