By Khalid al-Ansary
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Wednesday criticized military intervention by Sunni Arab neighbors in Bahrain, and followers of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr took to the streets of Baghdad.
The crackdown by Bahrain's Saudi-backed Sunni royal family against protesters from its Shi'ite majority has galvanized Iraq's Shi'ite community, exacerbating the sectarian tension that led to years of war in Iraq.
The arrival of Saudi troops in Bahrain has enraged Shi'ites in the region, drawing condemnation from Iran and prompting protests in Lebanon and Iraq. Bahrain, Lebanon and Iraq are the only Arab countries where Shi'ites outnumber Sunnis.
The intervention by Bahrain's neighbors "will contribute toward complicating the situation in the region, in a way that instead of solving it could lead to inflaming sectarian tension," Maliki's office quoted the prime minister as saying.
His ruling Iraqi National Alliance bloc, made up of Shi'ite factions, said in a statement: "We strongly condemn the Bahrain government's actions against its people, and the foreign interference against the protesters. We call for the immediate departure of the foreign troops and respect for the Bahraini people's demand for a democratic constitutional state."
Like Bahrain, Iraq has a Shi'ite majority that complained for decades of oppression under a ruling class of Sunni Muslims who dominate the Arab world.
Since U.S. forces toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 and replaced him with a Shi'ite-led government, Iraq has had uneasy relations with its Sunni Arab neighbors.
Iraq's senior Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who rarely intervenes publicly in politics, issued a call for the Bahrain authorities to "stop using violence against unarmed citizens," his spokesman Hamed al-Khafaf said.
In Baghdad, several thousand protesters gathered in Sadr's stronghold of Sadr City, waving Bahraini and Iraqi flags and chanting "Yes, yes to Bahrain!" One banner read: "The rulers of Saudi Arabia are killers!"
In Basra and Iraq's holy city of Najaf crowds numbering in the hundreds took to the streets chanting similar slogans.
"Moqtada al-Sadr is calling for demonstrations today in Baghdad and Basra to support the Bahraini people and to denounce and condemn the murdering of innocent revolutionaries," senior Sadr aide Hazem al-Araji told Reuters.
Sadr, who opposed the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, is now a major figure in Maliki's governing coalition commanding wide support of Shi'ites, especially the poor.
Another senior Shi'ite cleric in Najaf, Basheer al-Najafi, also condemned the Bahrain crackdown.
"The government surprised us by the arrival of armed forces from neighboring countries.. who assaulted villages and attacked and shed the blood of unarmed citizens who raised slogans of peace." Najafi said in a statement.
While Shi'ites in Iraq have sided with their fellow Shi'ites in Bahrain and oppose intervention by Sunni Gulf neighbors, Iraqis fear an increase in influence by Shi'ite Iran.
Iraq has seen violent protests in Baghdad and other cities as protests sweep through the Arab world, but in recent weeks they had not taken on a sectarian character.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Aref Mohammed in Basra and Khaled Farhan in Najaf; Writing by Peter Graff)