Bahrain Protests Saudi Troops Marshall Law
Saudi Troops Reported in Bahrain to Quell Protests
CAIRO —Troops crossed from Saudi Arabia into Bahrain on Monday to help quell unrest there, according to news reports. Bahraini opposition groups issued an angry statement saying such a move would amount to foreign occupation.
An unnamed Saudi official told Agence France-Presse that more than 1,000 Saudi troops had crossed the bridge linking Saudi Arabia to the tiny island kingdom, but there was no official confirmation from the Bahraini government. The Associated Press reported that a Saudi security official said the troops came from a special unit of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
“We’re awaiting confirmation but do not have it,” a spokeswoman for the Bahraini government said by telephone.
Mohammad al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, said several of his fellow activists had seen the troops arriving.
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.”
Anti-government protesters remained in the streets of Manama, the capital, on Monday, a day after thousands clashed with security forces in the worst 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 Shia 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 protests began.
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, unlike the policy it adopted in seeking to remove the leaders of Libya and, to a lesser extent, 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.”