TEHERAN • Iran's supreme leader predicted "divine vengeance" for Saudi Arabia's execution of a prominent Shi'ite cleric amid heightened tensions between the two Middle Eastern superpowers, a day after Iranian protesters ransacked the Saudi Embassy in Teheran over the kingdom's action.
The remarks yesterday from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other regional Shi'ite leaders, highlighted the fury over the death of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a force behind anti-government protests in Saudi Arabia in 2011. The 56-year-old cleric was put to death along with 46 others who the Saudi Interior Ministry said were involved in Al-Qaeda killings.
Ayatollah Khamenei criticised Saudi Arabia, saying "the unjustly spilled blood of this oppressed martyr will no doubt soon show its effect and divine vengeance will befall Saudi politicians".
Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, described the executions as an "unjust aggression". The opinion of Ayatollah al-Sistani, based in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, carries weight with millions of Shi'ites in Iraq and across the region, including in Saudi Arabia.
The leader of Lebanon's Shi'ite Hizbollah movement, Mr Hassan Nasrallah, also condemned the execution, saying the death could "not be taken lightly".
The executions prompted protests last Saturday in at least one city in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, where Shi'ites complain of marginalisation, as well as in Iraq and Bahrain.
In Teheran, the Saudi Embassy was ransacked after protesters threw petrol bombs and stormed the building, destroying its interior. The kingdom's consulate in Mashhad, Iran's second-biggest city, was also set on fire.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry called Iran's reaction "irresponsible" and summoned Teheran's envoy in protest.
But in a sign that Iran may seek to prevent any significant escalation, police closed off streets leading to the Saudi Embassy to prevent more protests. Prosecutors said 40 arrests were made.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, while condemning the execution, said attacking the embassy was "in no way justifiable".
In a statement, Nimr's family also urged his supporters "to have self-control" and "to demand their rights peacefully".
In Iraq, hundreds demonstrated in the holy Shi'ite city of Karbala, and prominent cleric Moqtada al-Sadr urged further protests yesterday.
The United States and European Union expressed alarm at the executions, with Washington warning that Riyadh risked "exacerbating sectarian tensions". United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon also said he was "deeply dismayed" by the state-sanctioned killings.
While Shi'ite leaders have hit out at Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have defended their Sunni ally, saying the executions were necessary to confront extremism.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS
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