Saudi police arrested a group of Iraqi Shiite Muslims when they were performing prayers in the Saudi Arabian holy city of Mecca earlier this week. There was a son of a leading politician among the detained people.
Ridha Jawad Taqi, a senior figure in the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, the country's biggest Shiite political party, told The Associated Press the group was targeted because they were Shiites.
A Saudi official said there had been a "dispute" between an Iraqi and a Saudi that had nothing to do with religion or nationality. Saudi police quickly controlled that dispute, the official said speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
An assault by police on Shiite pilgrims in Mecca would be unusual. Hundreds of thousands of Shiites from around the world visit the holy city each year on pilgrimages without physical harassment, even though Saudi Arabia's official strict Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam considers Shiites heretics.
Many in Saudi Arabia are deeply suspicious of Iraq's Shiites, believing they discriminate against Iraq's Sunni minority and are too closely linked to Shiite Iran.
The Saudi government has kept Iraq's Shiite-led government at arms length - though, under U.S. pressure, it is now considering reopening an embassy in Baghdad. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud said Tuesday a Saudi delegation was heading to Iraq to explore the idea.
Taqi said a group of 50 Shiite Iraqis was praying near the Kaaba, the cube-shaped shrine in Mecca that pilgrims circle, when Saudi police began insulting them.
The police saw the Iraqis were praying in the Shiite manner - which differs slightly from the Sunni way - and shouted "infidels" at them, Taqi said.
The police began to beat Mohammed Jawad, a cleric in the group, and when others in the group tried to intervene, including Taqi's son, Amir, they too were beaten, Taqi said.
The police detained 14 members of the group, including Taqi's son, who had bruises on his head from the beating, Taqi said. They were held for 14 hours then released, he said.
An official from the Saudi religious authorities visited the group afterward and apologized, but the Iraqis demanded a public apology, he said.
"The reason behind this act is clear. The Saudi policemen are mobilized against the Shiites due to the anti-Shiite edicts being issued by Saudi clerics," he added.