Saudis, UAE send troops to Bahrain to help quell protests

Soldiers sent to protect Sunni ruling family after weeks of Shi'ite protests; opponents of island’s dynasty call the move "war."

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
March 14, 2011 19:22
4 minute read.
Saudi troops cross into Bahrain

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

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates dispatched forces to Bahrain on Monday in response to a call from the island’s rulers to help put down weeks of protests by the country’s Shi’ite Muslim majority. Opponents of Bahrain’s Sunni dynasty called the move a declaration of war.

Analysts saw the troop movement into Bahrain, home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, as a mark of concern in Saudi Arabia that concessions by the country’s monarchy could inspire the conservative Sunni kingdom’s own restive Shi’ite minority concentrated in its Eastern Province, the center of the Saudi oil industry.

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About 1,000 Saudi soldiers entered Bahrain to protect government facilities, a Saudi official source said, a day after mainly Shi’ite protesters overran police and blocked roads.

“They are part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) force that would guard the government installations,” the source said, referring to the six-member bloc that coordinates military and economic policy in the world’s top oil-exporting region. Bahrain said on Monday it had asked the Gulf troops for support in line with a GCC defense pact. The Gulf Cooperation Council comprises Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The UAE sent about 500 police officers into Bahrain, Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan said.

“The Bahraini government asked us yesterday to look at ways to help them to defuse the tension,” he said.

“Other Gulf countries will also participate to get calm and order in Bahrain,” said Sheikh Abdullah, in Paris for a meeting of G8 foreign ministers.

Bahrain has been gripped by its worst unrest since the 1990s after protesters took to the streets last month, inspired by uprisings that toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. Thousands are still camped out at the Pearl roundabout, having returned since the army cleared out the area last month.

Any intervention by Gulf Arab troops in Bahrain is highly sensitive on the island, where the Shi’ite Muslim majority complains of discrimination by the Sunni Muslim royal family.

The UAE foreign minister met US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ahead of the broader G8 gathering that takes place in Paris on Monday night and Tuesday morning. The White House said Monday it did not consider the Saudi entry into Bahrain an invasion.

“We’ve seen the reports that you’re talking about. This is not an invasion of a country,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, adding, “We urge the government of Bahrain, as we have repeatedly, as well as other GCC countries, to exercise restraint.”

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Witnesses in Bahrain saw some 150 armored troop carriers, ambulances, water tankers and jeeps cross into Bahrain via the 25-km. causeway and head toward Riffa, a Sunni area that is home to the royal family and military hospital.

Bahraini opposition groups, including the largest Shi’ite party, Wefaq, said the move was an attack on defenseless citizens.

“We consider the entry of any soldier or military machinery into the Kingdom of Bahrain’s air, sea or land territories a blatant occupation,” they said in a statement. “This real threat about the entry of Saudi and other Gulf forces into Bahrain to confront the defenseless Bahraini people puts the Bahraini people in real danger and threatens them with an undeclared war by armed troops.”

The move came after Bahraini police clashed on Sunday with mostly Shi’ite demonstrators in one of the most violent confrontations since troops killed seven protesters last month. After trying to push back demonstrators for several hours, police backed off and youths built barricades across the highway to the main financial district of the Gulf banking hub.

In areas across Bahrain on Monday, vigilantes, some armed with sticks or wearing masks, guarded the entrances to their neighborhoods.

“We will never leave. This is our country,” said Abdullah, a protester, when asked if Saudi troops would stop them. “Why should we be afraid? We are not afraid in our country.”

The invasion could have profound regional implications. Most Gulf Arab ruling families are Sunni, and intervention might encourage a response from non-Arab Iran, the main Shi’ite power in the region. Accusations already abound of Iranian backing for Shi’ite activists in Bahrain – charges the Islamic Republic denies.

“Shi’ites in states with large Shi’ite populations, in particular Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, may intensify their own local anti-regime demonstrations,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, a partner at consultancy Cornerstone Global. “The Bahraini unrest could potentially turn into regional sectarian violence that goes beyond the borders of the particular states concerned.”


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