Bahrain declares martial law as violence escalates

By OREN KESSLER, HILARY LEILA KRIEGER IN WASHINGTO
March 16, 2011 01:33

Iran balks at foreign troops in neighboring kingdom while US, Egypt urge restraint.

4 minute read.



Saudi troops cross into Bahrain

Saudi troops Bahrain 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)

Bahrain’s king declared martial law on Tuesday as his government struggled to quell an uprising by the island’s Shi’ite Muslim majority that has drawn in troops from fellow Sunni-ruled neighbor Saudi Arabia.

The three-month state of emergency will hand wholesale power to Bahrain’s security forces, which are dominated by the Sunni Muslim elite, stoking sectarian tensions in one of the Gulf’s most politically volatile nations.

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The US expressed concern about spreading violence in the kingdom.

“The United States is deeply concerned by rising tensions and increasing incidents of violence throughout Bahrain,” a State Department official said. “The violence perpetrated in recent days by various vigilante groups in Bahrain who seek to interfere in efforts to move forward peaceful and meaningful dialogue is completely unacceptable.”

The official urged the government to “uphold its commitment to the human rights standards it has set for itself,” and called on all parties to “exercise maximum restraint and refrain from violence... to support meaningful and peaceful dialogue.”

The US noted it was particularly concerned about attacks on civilians and humanitarian targets, including ambulances and hospitals, by the riot police.

Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, is currently in Bahrain and holding contacts with officials in the government as well as opposition activists and NGO workers.

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Egypt urged Bahraini protesters to keep their demonstrations peaceful and follow the example of Egyptian activists who toppled Hosni Mubarak in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

“Egypt totally supports any nation demanding more liberty,” Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby said in his first public remarks since his appointment.

“All that we ask for is [that] as the youth in Tahrir have done... that this happens peacefully,” Elaraby said at a news conference alongside US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Cairo.

Disturbances shook Bahrain through the day. A hospital source said two men, one Bahraini and the other Bangladeshi, were killed in clashes in the Shi’ite area of Sitra and more than 200 people were wounded in various incidents. State television said a Bahraini policeman was also killed, denying media reports that a Saudi soldier had been shot dead.

Over 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shi’ites, and many complain of discrimination at the hands of the Sunni royal family. Calls for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed the Sunni minority, which fears that unrest could serve non-Arab Shi’ite power Iran.

Iran, which sits across the Gulf from Bahrain, criticized the decision to send in Saudi troops.

“The presence of foreign forces and interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs is unacceptable and will further complicate the issue,” an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

A Bahraini Foreign Ministry official called the remarks “blatant interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs,” the state news agency BNA said, adding that Manama had recalled its ambassador to Iran for consultations. The largest Shi’ite opposition group, Wefaq, condemned the imposition of martial law and urged international intervention.

The United States, a close ally of both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, said it was concerned about reports of growing sectarianism in the country, home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

“One thing is clear, there is no military solution to the problems in Bahrain,” said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor.

“In order for the situation to return to normal we have to establish order and security and... stop the violations which have spread disturbances among the people of our dear country,” said Interior Minister Sheikh Rashed al-Khalifa. It was not clear if a curfew would be imposed or whether there would be any clampdown on media or public gatherings.

Bahraini state media have said Shi’ite opposition activists, who complain the state has been naturalizing Sunni foreigners to tip the sectarian balance, are targeting foreigners.

The opposition says the security forces are full of naturalized foreigners willing to use force against protesters.

On Monday, more than 1,000 Saudi troops rolled into the kingdom at the request of Bahrain’s Sunni rulers, flashing victory signs as they crossed. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar have said they would also send police.

Thousands of Bahrainis marched on the Saudi Embassy in Manama on Tuesday to protest against the intervention.

“People are angry, we want this occupation to end. We don’t want anybody to help the al-Khalifa or us,” said a protester, referring to the royal family. Analysts said the troop movement showed concern in Saudi Arabia that any concessions in Bahrain could inspire the kingdom’s own Shi’ite minority.

The United Nations and Britain echoed the US call for restraint and the Group of Eight powers expressed concern, though analysts said the escalation showed the limits of US influence when security was threatened.

In a sign that security could deteriorate, the US State Department advised against all travel to Bahrain due to a “breakdown in law and order.”


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