TEHRAN, Iran — A leading Iranian cleric on Wednesday urged protesters in the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain to "stand up and resist" a government crackdown that has been backed by hundreds of Saudi Arabian troops.
Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, speaking to clerics in the holy city of Qom, also demanded that Saudi Arabia withdraw its forces from Bahrain.
The unrest in Bahrain, which erupted in February, has played out against the region's deep rivalries between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Protesters from Bahrain's Shiite majority have demanded that the kingdom's Sunni minority rulers grant them equal rights and a political voice.
Saudi Arabia, a largely Sunni nation, has rushed to the aid of Bahrain, while other Gulf countries have accused predominantly Shiite Iran of meddling in Bahrain's affairs by allegedly trying to stir Shiite unrest there.
On Wednesday, clerics in Qom, 130 kilometers south of Tehran, chanted slogans against Saudi Arabia's leaders and Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. "Death to the house of Saud. Death to the house of Khalifa," the clerics chanted at a religious gathering. "Bahrain's degraded ruler is enemy of (Islam's) prophet."
Khatami, a hardline cleric, accused the Saudis of having committed "savage crimes" against the people of Bahrain. "Dear Bahrainis, stand up and resist. Know that victory is yours. The enemy wants to see you disappointed and depressed," Khatami said in a speech broadcast live on Iranian state TV.
Khatami also alleged that the Obama administration has quietly backed the crackdown in Bahrain, even as Washington condemned the use of force against protesters in Tunisia and Egypt.
"What's happening in Bahrain is on the direct order of the U.S.," he said, referring to the clampdown.
The U.S. has pressed its allies in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, to meet some of the protest movement's demands for reforms. The opposition has appealed to the United States for stronger intervention to stop the crackdown.
However, the Saudi troop deployment in Bahrain came just two days after a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to the kingdom in mid-March. Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has said Washington's muted response suggested it has chosen to implicitly back the Saudis.
For several years, Shiites in Bahrain have protested discrimination and a government policy to naturalize Sunnis from other nations to try to offset the demographic imbalance.
In February, taking inspiration from uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, Bahrain's political opposition took to the streets in numbers never seen before, occupying a central square.
A government crackdown has killed at least 27 people, and authorities say they see Iran's influence among the opposition, though there are no apparent direct links.
Unable to immediately contain the unrest, Bahrain's rulers declared a state of emergency and invited in a Saudi-led regional military force to help.