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How Shia-Sunni strife can worsen crisis in Bahrain

Last updated on: February 19, 2011 10:01 IST

How Shia-Sunni strife can worsen crisis in Bahrain

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B Raman

Latest reports from Bahrain speak of considerable tension marked by anti-king and anti-government slogans shouted by thousands of Shia mourners.

They attended the funerals of seven persons killed during a crack-down by the riot police on a group of young people demonstrating against the government from the Pearl Square in Manama since February 14.

The protest movement started as a movement of solidarity with the Egyptian youth on February 14, turned into an anti-government movement on February 15 after the death of two Shias due to alleged use of force by the police.

It then turned into a movement against King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on February 17 after the brutal dispersal of the protesters from the Pearl Square by the riot police on the night intervening February 16/17.

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Image: Bahrain youths demonstrate in front of the police in Manama
Photographs: Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters
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The protests are now taking a religious colour

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Initially, the demonstrators were mainly shouting pro-democracy slogans calling for reforms and action to remove economic hardships.

There was no religious or sectarian colour, but after the crack-down by the riot police, it is tending to take a religious colour.

Some of the slogans shouted during the funeral ceremonies on February 18 were: "Justice, freedom and constitutional monarchy," "Victory for Islam", "death for Al Khalifa (the ruling family)", "We are your soldiers", "Revolution till victory," etc.

The government initially allowed the demonstrations to take place, but as they gathered strength the riot police moved in on the night of Februaty 16/17 and forcibly dispersed the demonstrators in the Pearl Square.

This was followed by a ban on meetings, fencing of the square to prevent demonstrators from gathering there again and deployment of the army with tanks and armoured personnel carriers at key points in the capital Manama.


Image: A man prays for demonstrators who were injured after riot police stormed an anti-government protest camp, outside the Salmaniya hospital in Manama
Photographs: Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters
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Bahrain suspects Iran's hand

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The Bahrain authorities have sought to project the demonstrations and the incidents of violence as largely organised by mischievous elements in the Shia community instigated from outside, meaning Iran.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa told a press conference on the evening of February 17 that the police intervention was justified to prevent "a sectarian conflict and an economic crisis."

He accused the demonstrators of "polarising the country" and pushing it to the "brink of the sectarian abyss."

However, there have been some reports of the involvement of some Sunni youth also in the demonstrations.

The BBC reports that the Shias formed 'the bulk of the protesters' on February 18. Al Jazeera's correspondents in Bahrain have reported as follows: "Hospitals are full of injured people after Wednesday night's police raid on the pro-reform demonstrators.

Some of them are severely injured with gunshots. Patients include doctors and emergency personnel who were overrun by the police while trying to attend to the wounded.

After several days of holding back, the island nation's Sunni rulers unleashed a heavy crackdown, trying to stamp out the first anti-government upheaval to reach the Arab states of the Gulf since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

In the surprise assault, police tore down protesters' tents, beating men and women inside and blasting some with shotgun sprays of bird-shot.

The pre-dawn raid was a sign of how deeply the Sunni monarchy fears the repercussions of a prolonged wave of protests, led by members of the country's Shia majority but also joined by growing numbers of discontented Sunnis."


Image: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Photographs: Umit Bektas / Reuters
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'It was a massacre'

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Even though the demonstrators initially took care not to project their protests as Shia protests against Sunni domination, the authorities, who have accused the Shia protesters of polarising inter-communal relations, have themselves contributed to the polarisation by encouraging the Sunnis, including Sunnis from South Asia living and working in Bahrain, to hold a counter demonstration in support of the king.

The attempt of the authorities to encourage counter-demonstrations by the Sunnis and the reported participation of Sunnis from South Asia in them could turn the Shias against the Muslim migrants from South Asia.

The Shias have been enraged by the brutal dispersal of the protesters from the Pearl Square. A senior Shia cleric, Sheikh Issa Qassem, has condemned the attack on the protesters by the riot police as a "massacre".

According to Al Jazeera, in the wake of the crack-down by the riot police, angry demonstrators chanted "the regime must go," and burned pictures of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa outside the emergency ward at Salmaniya Medical Complex, the main hospital in Manama.

Bahrain's opposition has demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa's government in the wake of the raid.

"The opposition groups, including Al-Wefaq, have issued a statement demanding the government resign and calling for the formation of a new government to investigate this crime," said Al-Wefaq bloc's leader, Ali Salman.

"We have decided to completely pull out from parliament," added Salman, whose bloc holds 18 seats in the country's 40-member elected house.


Image: A Bahraini woman holds a picture of Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Isa al-Khalifa as she shouts pro-government slogans during a pro-government rally in Riffa
Photographs: Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters
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Both US and Iran in equal dilemma over Bahrain

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Iran finds itself in a dilemma. It cannot vociferously support the demand for democracy and political reforms by the Shias of Bahrain while ruthlessly suppressing demonstrators in Iran voicing similar demands and threatening to execute their leaders.

The United States has been greatly concerned due to the likelihood of the unrest spreading to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries and coming in the way of its support to the anti-regime demonstrations in Iran.

How can the US vociferously support the pro-democracy demostrations in Iran while maintaining a muted response to the demonstrations in Bahrain?

If the demonstrations succeed in Bahrain and a pro-Iranian Shia group comes to power, it could affect the operations of the US Fifth Fleet, the headquarters of which are located in Bahrain.

The spread of the unrest in the Gulf region could impact on oil security. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US Defence Secretary Robert Gates are reported to have contacted their counterparts in Bahrain and urged restraint.

Obama's spokesman Jay Carney has said the President's view is that "we oppose the use of violence by the government of Bahrain."

If the US is not careful in handling the issue, it may end up by playing into the hands of Iran. At present, both the US and Iran face an equal dilemma in Bahrain, but the ultimate advantage could be with Iran if the protest movement picks up further momentum.


Image: United States Secretary of States Hillary Clinton
Photographs: Jason Reed/Reuters
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A ticklish situation for Indians in Bahrain

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There is considerable nervousness in the Gulf countries. Foreign Ministers of the Gulf Co-operation Council consisting of Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates held an emergency meeting in Manama on February 17 and said in a statement: "Our security is a collective responsibility and there is no question of accepting foreign interference."

The crisis in Bahrain poses a ticklish situation for Indian workers -- particularly Indian Muslims, many of whom are believed to be Sunnis.

If the Shias ultimately succeed, local anger could turn against the Sunnis from South Asia, who will be suspected of letting themselves be used by the Sunni rulers to suppress the movement.


Image: Military tanks are seen on the road to the Pearl Roundabout in Manama
Photographs: Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters
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