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February 07, 2014

Bahrain’s Soldier Sailor Sunni Shia Struggle

This is a cross-post from The Huffington Post.

Three years after the large-scale protests began in Bahrain, the Sunni-led government is still presiding over security forces that are overwhelmingly Sunni. While the protests were not and are not primarily sectarian, with Sunnis and Shias both demonstrating for democracy and human rights, Sunni control of the government and disproportionate representation in the security forces gives the tension a sectarian edge.

Sunnis still dominate the security forces even though a majority of the population are Shia. Likewise, most soldiers and sailors are Sunni, and no serious attempts have been made to integrate Shias into the police. They serve under an unelected Sunni family. (The King’s uncle has been prime minister for over 40 years and has never faced an election.)

At the end of 2011, after dozens of people had been killed and thousands imprisoned, a report commissioned by the king of Bahrain found that “…many  Shia claim to be victims of systematic discrimination on religious grounds. This, they argue, is evident in the limited numbers of Shia who serve in important government agencies, such as the BDF [Bahrain Defence Force]…”

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), headed by international legal expert Cherif Bassiouni, found that the BDF were responsible for a hundred arrests, including of two medics. It found that nine Shia mosques were “reportedly demolished … with the involvement of the BDF…”  The commission recommended that the government  “establish urgently, and implement vigorously, a programme for the integration into the security forces of personnel from all the communities in Bahrain,” but this hasn’t happened.

This is a major problem, one recognized by the U.S. government. As the Congressional Research Service notes, Shias have been “highly underrepresented in the security forces, serving mainly in administrative tasks.” Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates says in his new book that when he met the king of Bahrain in March 2011 he told him that “Time is not on your side,” and that the king should take some urgent steps to reform, including  to “move forward in integrating the Shia into the security services and the Bahrain defense force…” A lopsidedly sectarian makeup of security forces is an obstacle to stability in Bahrain, and so undermines U.S. national interests in the country and the region. A large, dissatisfied section of the country is barely represented in its security forces, contributing to wider grievances about a lack of job opportunities for Shias in the government, and political unrest.

It’s hard to know just how few Shia are in the BDF because the BDF hasn’t provided statistics. The BICI report estimated the whole force at around 12,000 personnel, but educated guesses put the representation of Shias as tiny, a few percent at most. Nonetheless, the U.S. continues to train and equip the BDF, with another $10 million earmarked in U.S. Foreign Military Funding for Bahrain in 2014.

The U.S. government’s voice on Bahrain’s human rights problems has faltered over the last three years, apparently uncertain about how to best exert its influence to press for democratic reform via its military relationship, and the presence of its Fifth Fleet.  Pushing for integration of the BDF, and the Bahrain police force, is one direct way it could support change.  The U.S. government provided expertise and technical help in the decade between 2001-2011 to the police service in Northern Ireland, which  upped its Catholic representation in the force from 8 per cent to 30 percent. It should insist that its continued cooperation with the BDF, including training and equipping the force, depends on a commitment to integration, starting with producing the numbers of Shias and Sunnis currently in its ranks.