- Associated Press - Monday, September 20, 2010

BAGHDAD | Bahrain stripped a powerful Shi’ite cleric with close ties to Iraq of his citizenship as authorities on Monday widened a crackdown against alleged dissidents ahead of next month’s elections in the tiny Gulf nation.

The move against Ayatollah Hussein al-Najati — the Bahraini representative of Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite figure — shows the increasingly hard line by the island kingdom’s Sunni leadership against the majority Shi’ites, who have religious and cultural ties to Iraq and Iran.

A wave of arrests in Bahrain since August have touched off street clashes and demonstrations across the country, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. But so far, there have been few major ripples throughout the region — where Sunni-led governments across the Gulf express growing worry about expanding Shi’ite influence from Iran.

Now the attempt to put Mr. al-Najati into political exile could draw in Iraq’s influential Shi’ite religious leaders and the political groups that dominate government. Mr. al-Najati is the Bahraini representative for Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s most influential Shi’ite political cleric.

Pulling his citizenship could set the stage for the eventual expulsion of Mr. al-Najati and his family, but its immediate effect appears to be a warning message to other Shi’ite clerics seeking to speak out against the state.

There was no immediate comment from Mr. al-Najati or Mr. al-Sistani’s office in Iraq.

But Shi’ite authorities in the Middle East are closely watching Bahrain’s tactics against suspected Shi’ite opposition groups ahead of parliamentary elections on Oct. 23.

Sunni governments across the region supporting Bahrain’s ruling dynasty and its escalating pressure on the 70 percent Shi’ite majority could risk a backlash from the Shi’ite leaders in Iran and Iraq.

It also throws into question whether Bahrain will remain committed to the political opening that began a decade ago and has been seen as the main democratic experiment in the Gulf.

More than 250 Shi’ites have been detained since mid-August, and Bahrain has accused 23 political activists and others of plotting to overthrow the government. Last week, Bahrain closed the semi-independent Human Rights Society and replaced the board with people chosen by the leadership.

Mr. al-Najati is one of Bahrain’s leading Shi’ite scholars and — like his mentor Mr. al-Sistani in Iraq — his voice carries great weight in political affairs. He has spoken out about the crackdowns, but any direct role in the unrest is not clear.

An Interior Ministry statement issued in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, said the passports for Mr. al-Najati, his wife and three children were revoked because their Bahraini nationality was not obtained “through the appropriate legal means.”

Bahraini officials have not elaborated, but it appears that Mr. al-Najati and his family would revert to the “stateless” status that confronted many Bahraini Shi’ites before political reforms a decade ago.

Stateless citizens in Bahrain can travel on special permits similar to those granted Palestinians living around the Middle East, but they cannot vote and do not receive state assistance such as housing aid.

Bahrain’s Shi’ites have long complained of discrimination in state jobs and housing and claim they are barred from influential posts in the security forces.

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