RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi Arabia's execution Saturday of 47 prisoners, including an influential Shiite cleric, threatened to further damage Sunni-Shiite relations in a regional struggle playing out across the Middle East between the kingdom and regional foe Iran.
Shiite leaders across the region swiftly condemned Riyadh and warned of sectarian backlash as Saudi Arabia insisted the executions were part of a justified war on terrorism. Also executed Saturday were al-Qaida detainees who were convicted of launching a spate of attacks against foreigners and security forces a decade ago.
Protesters in Iran, angered by the cleric's execution, broke into the Saudi embassy in Tehran early today, setting fires and throwing papers from the roof, Iranian media reported.
Shiite leaders in Iran and other countries across the Middle East swiftly condemned Riyadh and warned of sectarian backlash.
The execution is another focal point for sectarian and political wrangling between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two regional rivals back opposing sides in civil wars in Yemen and Syria. Saudi Arabia also was a vocal critic of Iran's recent agreement with world powers that ends international economic sanctions in exchange for limits on the Iranian nuclear program.
Iranian politicians warned that the Saudi monarchy would pay a heavy price for the death of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. The Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the Saudi envoy in Tehran to protest, and parliament speaker Ali Larijani said the execution would prompt "a maelstrom" in Saudi Arabia.
Al-Nimr's execution also could antagonize the Shiite-led government in Iraq, which has close relations with Tehran. The Saudi embassy in Baghdad, which had been closed for nearly 25 years, was reopened Friday. An influential Shiite militia in Iraq, known as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, called on the government Saturday to close down the embassy.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi tweeted Saturday night that he was "shocked and saddened" by al-Nimr's execution, adding that "peaceful opposition is a fundamental right. Repression does not last."
Hundreds of al-Nimr's supporters protested in his hometown of al-Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia, in neighboring Bahrain where police fired tear gas and bird shot, and as far away as northern India.
Germany's Foreign Ministry said the cleric's execution "strengthens our existing concerns about the growing tensions and the deepening rifts in the region."
Al-Nimr's death comes 11 months after Saudi Arabia issued a sweeping counterterrorism law after Arab Spring protests shook the region in 2011 and toppled several longtime autocrats. The law codified that the kingdom could prosecute as a terrorist anyone who demands reform, exposes corruption or otherwise engages in dissent or violence against the government.
The convictions of those executed Saturday were issued by Saudi Arabia's Specialized Criminal Court, established in 2008 to try terrorism cases.
To counter Arab Spring rumblings that threatened to spill into eastern Saudi Arabia, the kingdom sent troops in 2011 to crush Shiite protests demanding more political powers from the Sunni-led, fraternal monarchy of Bahrain. More security forces also were deployed that year to contain protests in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich east, where al-Nimr rallied youth who felt disenfranchised and persecuted.
A Saudi lawyer in the eastern region said three other Shiite political detainees were among the 47 executed.
Advocacy organization Reprieve, which works against the death penalty worldwide, said two of the Shiites executed were teenagers when they were arrested.
Saudi Arabia says all those executed were convicted of acts of terrorism. Al-Nimr and the three others mentioned had been charged in connection with violence that led to the deaths of several protesters and police officers.
Saudi Arabia's top cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, defended the executions as in line with Islamic Shariah law. He described the executions as a "mercy to the prisoners" because it would prevent chaos and save the executed from committing more evil acts.
Islamic scholars around the world hold vastly different views on the application of the death penalty in Shariah law. Saudi Arabia's judiciary adheres to one of the strictest interpretations, a Sunni Muslim ideology referred to as Wahhabism.
Because Saudi Arabia carries out most executions through beheading and sometimes in public, it has drawn comparisons to extremist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
Saudi Arabia strongly rejects the comparisons and points out that it has a judicial appeals process with executions ultimately aimed at combating crime.