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Bahrain boils as uprising nears 1-year mark

Associated Press

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) – It’s usually well after midnight before Bahrain takes a breather.

The thud of riot police stun grenades trails off, the stinging tear gas mist is carried away and the protest chants against the Gulf kingdom’s rulers go quiet until the next day. Then the cycle of unrest resumes in one of the longest-running _ and perhaps most diplomatically complex _ chapters of the Middle East uprisings.

“Egypt, Tunisia, Libya,” demonstrators now shout during running battles with security forces. “Bahrain’s leaders are next.”

A year ago this month, Bahrain’s majority Shiites took inspiration from the Arab Spring to sharpen long-standing grievances against the Sunni monarchy, accused by Shiites of relegating them to second-class status in the Western-allied nation. Within days of the first protest march, Bahrain was sliding into a crisis that would bring more than two months of martial law, more than 40 deaths, hundreds of arrests and ongoing clashes so disruptive that the U.S. Embassy last month relocated workers into safe haven neighborhoods.

But the troubles also reach far beyond the tiny flame-shaped island off the Saudi coast. The past year has turned Bahrain into a crossroads for every major showdown in the region.

Drawn into the mix is Saudi Arabia as protector of Bahrain’s Sunni dynasty. Archrival Iran is an angry bystander at the fierce crackdowns on fellow Shiites. And the U.S. is Bahrain’s conflicted partner.

Washington watches the violence with growing unease but is fearful of souring relations either with the Saudis or Bahrain’s leaders who host the Navy’s strategic 5th Fleet _ one of the Pentagon’s main counterweights to Tehran’s military.

“The international paralysis over Bahrain has, if anything, become more pronounced with the rising tensions over Iran’s nuclear program,” said Toby Jones, an expert on Bahraini affairs at Rutgers University. “It’s every tough problem in the region funneled into one small place.”

It also highlights the intense difficulties facing the West _ and Washington in particular _ if pro-reform rebellions someday spread further in the Gulf.

The Gulf Arab states, anchored by Saudi Arabia, are critical front-line allies against Iran. Any threats to the Gulf’s autocrats would be perceived in the West also as an assault on important political interests.

“It was much easier for the U.S. to cut loose (former Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak than it would be with any of the Gulf states,” said Christopher Davidson, an expert on Gulf affairs at Britain’s Durham University. “The Arab Spring is definitely weighing heavily on the minds of Gulf rulers and their Western partners.”

For the moment, Gulf dissent outside Bahrain is limited to long-running political disputes in Kuwait and recent protests by minority Shiites in Saudi Arabia, where rioters threw firebombs at police last month after the killing of a demonstrator. It’s clear from Bahrain, however, that Gulf rulers will strike back hard at any whiff of opposition.

A Saudi-led military force moved into Bahrain last March to help prop up the overwhelmed Al Khalifa dynasty, which has its ancestral roots among Saudi tribes. The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council later began studying closer defense cooperation _ both to bolster against perceived Iranian threats and as a united front against internal opposition.

In the view of Gulf Arab leaders, Bahrain is the ultimate red line.

Safeguarding the 200-year-old Sunni hold on power is seen as an act of self-preservation. If Bahrain’s rulers lose their grip, the thinking goes, then the domino-style risks grow for other rulers from Kuwait to Oman. Adding to the collective hard line: They accuse Bahrain’s Shiites of offering a cozy foothold for Shiite giant Iran _ even though an independent report on Bahrain’s unrest found no evidence of links to Tehran.

That hasn’t discouraged Gulf officials from brandishing Iran as the string-pullers of the Bahrain unrest. In an interview in Davos, Switzerland, Saudi Prince Turki Al Faisal, a former intelligence chief, told The Associated Press that Iran is “going behind our backs” to spark revolt in the region.

Days later, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, denounced the “double standard” policies of Western powers to back other Arab uprisings but keeping a distance from Bahrain’s Shiites to protect their strategic interests.

American officials, speaking privately, have cast doubts on the Gulf Arab narrative that Iran is behind the Bahrain protests _ a theme also pushed by the army of international public relations consultants hired by Bahrain. Washington, instead, has urged for more talks with both sides and has put a “pause” on a proposed $53 million arms sale.

Earlier this week, however, Washington said it would sell some military equipment, without disclosing any further details.

“Washington is clearly unwilling to move this to the next level by using whatever political and military leverage it has to strong arm Bahrain’s leaders,” said Jones, the professor. “The U.S. doesn’t buy into the idea that Iran is waiting in the wings in Bahrain. But it also cannot appear to be going against its deep alliances with the Gulf Arabs.”

Bahrain’s protesters display no pro-Iranian slogans or banners.

But they indirectly echo Iran’s anger toward Saudi Arabia, which Tehran regards as an unwelcome “occupying” force in Bahrain. At Manama’s airport, the green Saudi and red-and-while Bahraini flags are displayed with crossed staffs. Pro-government Sunnis adorn their cars with bumper sticks mixing the two country’s national colors.

“We feel we are a colony of Saudi Arabia now,” said 30-year-old Ameera Mohammad, who joined other women chanting anti-government slogans last week in the Shiite district Diraz. “The government has lost its legitimacy.”

The overall aims of Bahrain’s protesters are packaged in equally rejectionist terms. They demand the monarchy cede its control of the government and allow Cabinet officials _ including the prime minister _ to reflect the votes in a nation about 70 percent Shiites, but with Sunnis in firm control of all policies and security. In attempts to offset the lopsided demographics, Bahrain’s rulers for years have granted citizenship to Sunnis from the Arab world and South Asia and jobs that include security posts.

The king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, has offered a series of reforms, including plans to give more decision-making powers to parliament. But overhauling the heart of government does not appear an option.

This locks Bahrain into its current seesaw battles, which show signs of intensifying toward the anniversary of last year’s opening protest march on Feb. 14.

Protesters recently have tried to push out of Shiite districts and onto highways and business zones in the capital, Manama. Firebombs and steel pipes have joined the barrages of rocks against security forces.

Calls have gone out to reclaim Pearl Square, the hub of the early weeks of the rebellion before it was stormed by security forces. Demolition crews then knocked down the landmark six-pronged monument _ one leg for each of the Gulf Arab states _ and ringed the area with razor wire and round-the-clock patrols.

Each Friday, the most senior Shiite cleric, Sheik Isa Qassim, delivers rallying cry sermons that have grown in frustration as authorities have stepped up crackdowns and sentenced Shiite activists and others to prison. Last month, he urged followers to “smack” any officials seen harassing women _ who have increasingly taken prominent roles in the protests.

“We will continue to struggle,” said Sheik Ali Salman, head of the biggest Shiite opposition bloc, which withdrew its lawmakers from parliament in protest. He listed the flashpoints of the Arab Spring _ Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Egypt _ in a stern rebuttal to the king’s reform outlines in December.

“It reminds us of the presidents who were toppled by the people,” he said. “We waited a year to a have this speech, and it’s as if nothing happened in Bahrain and the Arab Spring.”

The streets tell a different story. Hit-and-run battles are now a near daily event in some areas with tear gas so intense that it’s been blamed for respiratory failure among some of the nearly 40 deaths from the unrest. Some rights groups have placed the total at 45 or higher.

Last month, Amnesty International urged Bahraini authorities to investigate claims of excessive tear gas use “including in people’s homes and other confined spaces.”

Protesters counter by carrying cartons of milk to douse their eyes and neutralize the burn of the tear gas. On Sitra island, a hotbed of Shiite protests, more protesters have starting wearing white shrouds symbolizing their willingness to die.

“It’s a war between dictatorship and democracy,” growled a 29-year-old demonstrator, Mohammad Ali.

In another part of Bahrain, Sadeeqa Mirza says her life changed during the arrest sweeps during 10 weeks of martial law. She claims she was beaten in custody and charged for anti-state actions as part of the occupiers of Pearl Square.

“I was arrested because I am Shiite. I went to Pearl Square to express my views,” she said. “Expressing your views is not a crime, but in Bahrain it is.”

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Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)