Masked gunmen open fire on Shiite community

Residents said the crowd had been leaving a Shiite place of worship on the eve of Ashura when the attack took place.

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Riyadh // Seven people died and 12 were injured when three masked attackers opened fire with automatic weapons and handguns in the Shiite village of Al Dalwah in eastern Saudi Arabia on Monday.

In a security sweep after the attack, two police officers and two men they were hunting died in a gunfight in Qassim, north of Riyadh.

Fifteen people were arrested in connection with the attack in Al Dalwah, where the gunmen opened fire on a Shiite Husseiniya congregation hall.

“They entered the main gate” and fired at the congregation “before they fled”, said Tawfiq Al Saif, a prominent activist from the Eastern Province.

The strike in the village set amid date palms and farmland near Al Ahsa oasis came during the Shiite religious celebration of Ashura.

The rise of ISIL in Iraq and Syria had raised concerns among Shiites that they would be targets for attacks by Islamist extremists. “There are a lot of Takfiri calls” now against Saudi Shiites, Mr Al Saif said.

The kingdom’s senior Muslim scholars described the attack as an “ugly crime”, and Hashem Al Salman, a Shiite religious leader, urged Shiites to avoid actions that “raise sectarian tension”.

Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE, is part of the US-led coalition to destroy ISIL, the Al Qaeda breakaway group that has seized territory in Syria and Iraq and used social media to recruit in the kingdom.

Security forces and top Saudi religious scholars have stepped up efforts to prevent citizens from joining the group abroad and are arresting supporters at home.

If this was a Sunni militant strike against Shiite worshippers, the aim would be to “stir up sectarian trouble” and the “first time we have had this sort of attack in Saudi Arabia”, said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Centre.

Saudi security forces cracked down on Al Qaeda militants after extremists started targeting foreign nationals and government officials from 2003, including bombing two residential compounds in the capital. The latest attack may represent a change in the security threat to the Al Saud ruling family, Mr Alani said.

“The problem is that you may have small groups emerging, two or three people coming together, with no link to a larger organisation, because of events in Iraq and Syria.

“This is very difficult to deal with.”

* Bloomberg News