May 22 at 1:15 PM
epa04761737 People help a man wounded in a suicide attack on the Shiite Imam Ali mosque during Friday prayers in a village in the eastern province of Qatif, Saudi Arabia, 22 May 2015. EPA/STR (Str/EPA)
A suicide bomber in Saudi Arabia set off a blast at a Shiite mosque on Friday in the kingdom’s oil-rich eastern province, killing or injuring dozens in an attack claimed by the Islamic State.
There was no immediate comment from Saudi authorities on the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility, carried in a statement distributed by Twitter. But the blast marks the first major bloodshed in Saudi Arabia to be claimed directly by the Islamic State, and is likely to bring further security crackdowns by Saudi forces
The Sunni-run group views Shiites as Muslim heretics and opposes the Western ties of Saudi Arabia’s leadership. Saudi Arabia also represents huge propaganda symbolism for militants as home to Islam’s holiest sites.
The Reuters news agency, citing residents and hospital officials, said “around 20 people” were killed and about 50 injured in the suicide bombing. Saudi-run al-Arabiya television reported at least 19 people were dead and about 100 injured in the village of Qadeeh, part of a mostly Shiite enclave about 240 miles northeast of the capital, Riyadh.
The Islamic State communique said a “martyrdom-seeking brother” set off an explosive belt during a gathering of “impure” Shiites, according to the SITE Intelligence group, which monitors militant postings on social media and elsewhere.
An activist, Naseema al-Sada, told the Associated Press that a suicide bomber detonated explosives as worshipers marked the birth of the 7th century Shiite saint, Imam Hussein.
The official Saudi News Agency reported an explosion at the mosque but had no further details.
Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich eastern region, the center for the kingdom’s Shiite minority, has been the scene of sporadic unrest and violence for years.
In November, gunmen opened fire on a Shiite religious procession, killing seven people. Saudi officials blamed the attack on militants linked to the Islamic State.
An audio statement from a person claiming to represent the attackers praised the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but did not specify any group linked to the slayings, SITE reported.
A statement from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned Friday’s mosque blast “in the strongest terms” and said “such attacks on places of worship are abhorrent and intended to promote sectarian conflict.”
Security has been increased in the eastern province since the beginning of Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen against Shiite rebels in late March. Saudi Arabia accuses Shiite power Iran of aiding the rebels, known as Houthis. Tehran denies the claims.
But many Shiite leaders in Saudi Arabia have pledged support for the military campaign in Yemen, where the Houthis practice Shiite traditions different from those in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
In past years, Shiite protesters have clashed with Saudi security forces during demonstrations for greater rights. Shiites, who account for an estimated 12 percent of the Saudi population, claim they face widespread discrimination from the kingdom’s Sunni leadership.
Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.