By Angus McDowall
LONDON (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry said on Monday its security forces would use "an iron fist" to end violence in a Shi'ite Muslim area of the country and defended its tactics against what it called foreign-backed troublemakers.
Sunni Muslim kingdom Saudi Arabia has blamed an unnamed foreign power, widely understood to mean Shi'ite Iran, for backing attacks on its security forces in its Eastern Province.
But members of the Shi'ite minority in the area have accused the kingdom's own security force of using violence against protesters.
"It is the state's right to confront those that confront it first ... and the Saudi Arabian security forces will confront such situations ... with determination and force and with an iron first," the ministry said in a statement.
The statement came in response to a sermon preached in the Qatif area of the Eastern Province last week that criticized the government's handling of the situation, in which at least six people have been killed, a ministry spokesman said.
Shi'ite activists in Qatif said the clashes first began at the height of the Arab uprisings last year and were provoked by the detention without charge of political campaigners.
Four people were killed in November, one in January and one earlier this month, the interior ministry has said in past statements.
Members of the minority have long complained of discrimination, which they say makes it harder for them to find government jobs, attend university or worship in open than members of the Sunni majority.
Since the protests and clashes started last year, they have also complained of police checkpoints and patrols which they describe as heavy handed.
The government says it does not discriminate against Shi'ites and has said the increased security is intended to protect Qatif residents.
It has repeatedly blamed the clashes on people attacking security forces.
The statement said the security forces were using "the greatest restraint ... despite continuing provocations" and "will not act except in self defense and will not initiate confrontations."
"Some of those few (who attacked security forces) are manipulated by foreign hands because of the kingdom's honorable foreign policy positions towards Arab and Islamic countries," the ministry's spokesman said in the statement.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have fought for influence across the Middle East.
(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Andrew Heavens)