Monday, March 14, 2011

Gulf security forces enter Bahrain, in response to escalating protests

Washington Post: Gulf security forces enter Bahrain, in response to escalating protests
DAMMAM, SAUDI ARABIA - A military force from Bahrain's Gulf neighbors entered the tiny island nation Monday in an apparent attempt to restore order as anti-government demonstrations escalate.

The Bahrain Defense Force confirmed the arrival of military units from a special Gulf Cooperation Council security force. The Council is a regional economic and military alliance comprised of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman.

A Saudi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told the Associated Press that the force would secure key buildings. The U.S. Embassy in Bahrain advised American citizens to stay in their residences.

The force included about 1,000 Saudi soldiers, a Saudi official source told Reuters news service. Witnesses saw some 150 armored troop carriers, ambulances, water tankers and jeeps cross into Bahrain over a causeway from Saudi Arabia, Reuters reported.

It was not clear Monday evening whether Bahrain had requested the troop presence or whether it had been imposed by neighboring countries. A spokeswoman for the Bahraini government, Rebecca Guthrie, declined to say that Bahrain had asked for the military presence.

"I couldn't say whether it was requested or not," she said, "but the decision came out after a GCC foreign ministers' meeting" on Sunday.

"It's like a declaration of war on the people who are engaged in a peaceful protest demanding basic rights," said Jassim Hussain, a spokesman for Al-Wefaq, the main political opposition party. "They are viewed as occupation forces."

He said that the presence of "foreign troops" made it more difficult for opposition groups to engage in negotiations with the government.

The Obama administration repeated its call for restraint in Bahrain. "We urge our GCC partners to show restraint and respect the rights of the people of Bahrain, and to act in a way that supports dialogue instead of undermining it," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

Frederick Martin, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which is stationed in Manama, said in an e-mail that "we have a long standing relationship with the Government of Bahrain, and they are a valued member of the Combined Maritime Forces. We continue to monitor the situation."

Protesters who have been calling for democratic reforms have successfully shut down large swaths of Manama, the capital city, and Bahraini security forces have fought back with teargas and rubber bullets. Pro-government civilians have in some cases attacked protesters with sticks, knives and swords; the protesters have responded with rocks and other objects, witnesses have said.

Witnesses in Manama said that most downtown businesses were closed Monday.

Authorities in Saudi Arabia, which is connected to Bahrain by a causeway, have looked at its smaller neighbor with growing anxiety, fearful that a victorious Shiite majority in Bahrain could embolden Saudi Arabia's own Shiite minority in nearby oil-rich Eastern Province.

They are also worried about Iran exploiting the situation off their coast, although American officials have said that they do not believe Iran has been involved in the Bahrain protests.

A pro-government political society in Bahrain called Sunday for martial law to be imposed, the state news agency reported, while the White House issued a statement condemning the use of force.

On Saturday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa and pushed him to take stronger steps toward democratic reforms.

Protesters, who are largely from the country's Shiite majority, have occupied central Pearl Square in Manama since mid-February. They have been calling for democratic reforms and an end to what they say is discrimination against Shiites by the Sunni monarchy.

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