A surge of enthusiasm among Shiite Muslims for participating in local elections Thursday has alarmed some Sunni extremists, who are waging a hate campaign against the kingdom's minority.

Saudi Shiites, who have long complained of discrimination, believe the elections will give them a voice and official channels to communicate grievances in a country where the Sunni religious establishment follows a puritanical code that shuns them as religious deviants.

The vote in Eastern Province, where the country's 3 million to 4 million Shiites are concentrated, is the second stage of unprecedented municipal elections that some see as a key step in opening up decision-making in this absolute monarchy. Voting also is being held Thursday in four regions of the south.

In their sermons, Shiite clergymen have urged men to vote, saying they should not isolate themselves from others in the nation of 20 million people. Shiite candidates persuaded merchants to offer discounts to Shiites who registered to vote.

Some Shiite women, barred from voting like all Saudi women, called on mothers, sisters and daughters to encourage male relatives to take advantage of the opportunity for a say in decision-making in this absolute monarchy.

The electoral success of Iraq's long-suppressed Shiite community across the border added to Saudi Shiite's enthusiasm.

"When we saw how the Shiites rose from nothing in Iraq, we said to ourselves we should elect a municipal council that will take our voice to decision-makers," said Asma al-Eid, a Saudi political activist who cannot vote because she is a woman.

Shiites are expected to sweep all five seats in Qatif, a mostly Shiite city on the Persian Gulf, and half of the six seats in the mixed Al-Hasa area. But in other urban districts in the province, Sunnis are expected to have clear wins.

Roughly 60 percent of Shiites registered to vote, about double the rate in the far larger Sunni community. That upset militant Sunnis, who stepped up anti-Shiite rhetoric in Internet chat rooms.

A Web statement signed by people purporting to be Sunni clerics urged men in the Eastern Province's mostly Sunni area of Dammam to vote for a list of seven mostly Islamist Sunni candidates to prevent "pro-Iranian deviants" from winning.

Sunni extremists contend Saudi Arabia's (search) Shiite minority wants to ally with the Shiite majorities in Iraq and Iran to form a "Shiite crescent" that would threaten Sunni dominance of the region.

Shiites dismiss such chatter as the narrow-mindedness of a few zealots, but the message resonates with many Sunnis, who have heard such rhetoric for years in their schools and mosques.

A Shiite leader, Sheik Fauzi al-Seif, said the Shiite community in Qatif is the world's oldest and has deep roots in Saudi Arabia. "Those talking about crescents know nothing about our history," he said.

Some Sunnis also criticized the sometimes vicious chat room postings aimed at Shiites.

Turki al-Hamad, a Sunni intellectual in Dammam and former political science professor, said he recently visited a Shiite candidate in Qatif to "show we are all citizens and sectarian issues should not differentiate between us."

The Shiite-Sunni split goes back to a 7th century struggle over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad as leader of all Muslims. Shiites believe the role should have gone to Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law who was killed by rivals in what is today Iraq.

One Shiite candidate, Jaafar Al-Shayeb, said the U.S.-led war in Iraq and subsequent elections there had helped in "loosening up the situation" for Shiites in Saudi Arabia.

Most Shiite political prisoners have been released, travel bans lifted and exiles allowed to come home. Shiite calls to prayer can now mention Ali's name. A ban on the Shiite practice of whipping oneself to demonstrate grief over the death of Ali's son Hussein also has been lifted.

But al-Shayeb and others note these changes have not been formalized and say that without regulations banning discrimination against them, Shiites will still be treated as second-class citizens.

Other restrictions remain: Shiites cannot teach religious studies or hold sensitive government, security, school or hospital positions. Shiite publications are banned. School children are taught Shiites are deviants and their practice of visiting graves is a sin.

So Shiites have high hopes for the elections in the Eastern Province, which contains most of the country's oil fields but is less developed than other regions.

"Being able to participate in elections is the kind of openness we couldn't dream of," said Naeema al-Hussein, a teacher in a religious school. "We should take advantage of it."

Al-Hussein and other women political activists participated in the campaign peripherally, by meeting regularly with candidates. They proposed ways to improve platforms, expressed women's demands and learned about campaigning to prepare for the possible inclusion of women in the next elections in 2009.