Saudi Troops Enter Bahrain to Help Put Down Unrest
CAIRO —Troops from Saudi Arabia and police officers from the United Arab Emirates crossed into Bahrain on Monday under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council to help quell unrest there, a move Bahraini opposition groups denounced in a statement as an “occupation.”
Witnesses said a convoy of 150 armored troop carriers and about 50 other lightly armed vehicles carried about 1,000 troops across the bridge linking Saudi Arabia to the tiny island kingdom, and a Saudi security official told The Associate Press that the troops were there to protect critical buildings and installations like oil facilities. However, witnesses later said that the convoy seemed to be heading for Riffa, a Sunni area that is home to the royal family and a military hospital that is closed to the public, Reuters reported.
The opposition statement said it considered the arrival of any soldier or military vehicle “an overt occupation of the kingdom of Bahrain and a conspiracy against the unarmed people of Bahrain.”
A senior administration official said the United States was “definitely concerned” by the deployment of troops, saying the protests in Bahrain needed “a political solution, not military.” The State Department dispatched Jeffrey D. Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, to Bahrain on Monday. He had been scheduled to join Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on her travels to Egypt and Tunisia this week.
Pro-government lawmakers, called the Independent Bloc, asked the government to enforce martial law for three months to ensure public safety and national stability threatened by what it called “extremist” elements, the Bahrain News Agency reported.
Anti-government protesters remained in the streets of Manama, the capital, on Monday, a day after thousands clashed with security forces in the most chaotic day of confrontation since demonstrations began a month ago. The protests are part of the regional turmoil against autocracy but are fed in Bahrain by tensions between the majority Shiite population and the Sunni royal family and elite.
The demonstrators on Sunday effectively shut down the roads leading to the capital’s financial sector and held rallies at the main campus of the university as well. It was the most serious challenge to the royal family since the beginning of the protests, which have caused deep concern in Saudi Arabia, which has a restive Shiite minority in its eastern, oil-producing region..
Witnesses said the police used tear gas and fired on the protesters with rubber bullets.
“This was a very, very big day,” Mr. Maskati said by telephone from Pearl Square, the epicenter for protests in central Manama. “Now the protesters control these streets. There are walls of rubble keeping out the police and armed groups. People say they will not sleep tonight.”
There were also clashes at the campus of the main university, where protesters contended that the security forces were protecting armed vigilantes accused of fomenting tensions between the 70 percent of the population that is Shiite Muslim and the Sunni ruling family and elite.
The latest protests occurred a day after Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates stopped in Bahrain and warned the Khalifa family, which has ruled Bahrain for two centuries, that it must go beyond the “baby steps” of reform to meet the economic and political demands sweeping much of the Arab world.
The White House issued a statement on Sunday that said the United States strongly condemned violence that had occurred in Bahrain and Yemen, and added, “We urge the government of Bahrain to pursue a peaceful and meaningful dialogue with the opposition rather than resorting to the use of force.”
Bahrain, a kingdom on the Persian Gulf, is home to the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet and is a crucial American ally. The Obama administration has supported the Khalifa family through the unrest, in contrast to its efforts to remove the leaders of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. But the White House has tried to push Bahrain’s government to meet many of the protesters’ demands, worried that Iran, which is overwhelmingly Shiite, could exploit the unhappiness of Shiites in Bahrain.
“I expressed the view that we had no evidence that suggested that Iran started any of these popular revolutions or demonstrations across the region,” Mr. Gates told reporters after his visit on Saturday. “But there is clear evidence that as the process is protracted, particularly in Bahrain, that the Iranians are looking for ways to exploit it and create problems.”
He added, “Time is not our friend.”
The demonstrations on Sunday occurred on King Faisal Highway at the entrance to Manama’s financial district. In a statement, the government said the violence began when “a group of protesters attacked unarmed police officers, resulting in one police officer being stabbed and another sustaining a serious head injury.”
“Police then sought to disperse approximately 350 protesters by using tear gas in order to clear the road,” the government said. “The Ministry of Interior is currently undergoing operations to reopen the King Faisal Highway.”
By Sunday evening, witnesses said, the highway remained essentially closed to traffic and was in the hands of demonstrators.
“It is like a ghost town with the highway closed and the financial district closed,” Hussein Muhammad, a bookstore owner and activist, said by telephone. “Thousands of people came all morning, and hundreds were injured.” Two demonstrators suffered serious head injuries, witnesses said.
Last month, Obama administration officials said that Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, listened when President Obama asked him to pull back his security forces after seven people were killed at the start of the protests.
The demonstrators have grown frustrated that they have been allowed to hold on to Pearl Square, a traffic circle but have not achieved their political goals. That is why, they said, they chose to move on the financial center in a country that prizes its business-friendly policies. And there is growing concern that the pro-democracy movement is deteriorating into a Sunni-Shiite split.
“We want a new constitution, fair and free elections and a government elected directly by the people,” Mohammad Mattar, an engineer and member of the Waad pro-reform movement, said by telephone. “These are not sectarian demands, but political ones. We want a constitutional monarchy, a clear relationship between the ruling family and society. But the security forces are trying to create a sectarian divide.”
Bahrain’s crown prince, Sheik Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, meanwhile, renewed a call for national dialogue on Sunday, promising that the talks would address proposals to increase the power of Parliament, Reuters reported.
“We have worked actively to establish contacts to learn the views of various sides,” he said in a statement that was read on Bahrain TV, “which shows our commitment to a comprehensive and inclusive national dialogue.”
Mr. Gates said on Saturday that he told the king and crown prince that change “could be led or it could be imposed.”
He added, “Obviously, leading reform and being responsive is the way we’d like to see this move forward.”