Bahrain: Violence escalates ahead of Feb. 14 anniversary

By Andrew Hammond

MANAMA, (Reuters) - The funeral march for Mohammed Yaacoub had barely ended last week when police and protesters faced off in the town of Sitra, an impoverished district of Bahrain that has borne the brunt of a year of unrest.

Teenagers using scarves to mask their faces went on a rampage wielding iron bars and petrol bombs, and riot police in their prim blue uniforms and white helmets fired off teargas rounds and stormed down alleyways in their trademark jeeps.

"People have no alternative -- all we have is tyres to burn and Molotovs to throw," one activist said. "As long as the government is not ready to respond, anything is possible." The Bahrain government's security tactics and offer of concessions appear to have failed in calming the streets; if anything the conflict with opposition activists pushing for democratic reforms has become more violent in recent weeks.

Protesters shout anti-government slogans as they participate in a week-long sit-in in Budaiya west of Manama this week. Reuters

Thousands of pro-democracy protesters took to Bahrain's streets last February and March, occupying a central roundabout in Manama, following revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. As talks on political reforms stalled and some demands shifted to ditching the ruling Al Khalifa family, hardliners in the government brought in Saudi troops and imposed martial law in a bid to quash a movement that was feared to be large enough to pose a real threat to the existing order.

By the time martial law was lifted in June, 35 people had died, including four in police custody and several security personnel. But the tensions have not gone away. Police continue to clash with disaffected youth in underdeveloped neighbourhoods populated by the island state's majority Shi'ite Muslim population, who complain of political and economic marginalisation by the ruling elite of Al Khalifa and allied families.

Activists say at least 25 people have died since June, in some cases after exposure to teargas or in incidents as police in cars storm down alleyways in pursuit of teenagers. At least ten of these deaths occurred in the last two months, after a commission of international legal scholars charged with investigating claims of widespread rights abuses during the period of martial law at the end of November delivered a damning report revealing torture of detainees and flawed military trials.

Now both government and opposition are preparing for a tense month as the Feb. 14 anniversary of the first pro-democracy protests approaches. The stakes could not be higher. Sunni-ruled states in the Gulf fear reforms making Bahrain the first real Gulf democracy would raise the bar in their own countries. Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite minority is already involved in similar clashes with security forces.

They also fear that a Bahrain with empowered Shi'ites would naturally develop closer ties with Iran. The United States, whose Fifth Fleet is based in Manama, shares concerns about Iranian influence and see Bahrain as a key ally in their stand-off with Tehran over its nuclear energy programme.


The government says it is dealing with hooligans whose violent behaviour would not be tolerated in any country. It says the protesters' own political leaders have failed them by rejecting offers of dialogue over the year and making unrealistic demands such as that the government stand down over the rights report.

"We definitely see an escalation from the radical elements of the protesters. We see their use of homemade weapons that have hurt our policemen in a bad way," said Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, a senior adviser at the Information Affairs Authority and former ambassador to London.
"The door is still open... but don't give me preconditions and don't give me that the government has to resign."

The interior ministry says it wants legislation meting out 15-year sentences to those who attack police -- a police car was destroyed in a petrol bomb attack last week, though no policeman has died in the clashes since March.

Columnists in pro-government papers go further, accusing opposition leaders and Shi'ite clerics of coordinating with Shi'ite state Iran to inflame the streets -- familiar charges that make the opposition roll their eyes. "We've been hearing this rhetoric for many years. Whenever there's a movement with political demands they play this song," said Farida Ismail, a senior member of the Waad party.

Media have also pointed to the rhetoric of the most influential cleric in Bahrain, Sheikh Issa Qassim, who recently called on worshippers to "crush" those who aggress against women -- a response to reports of mistreatment of women protesters.

Qassim's phrase -- "Ishaquh!" (Crush them) -- has appeared as graffiti in Shi'ite districts all over the country. Pro-government groups, including many Sunnis, fear that Shi'ite clerics and Islamist politicians will dominate the country, as in Iraq, if the government makes any compromises.

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