Post from April, 2012

Wary of Iran, Saudis seek progress on Gulf union

Monday, 30. April 2012 1:33

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Mon Apr 30, 2012 4:16am BST

(Reuters) – Wary of Iran and regional protest movements, Gulf Arab states are pushing ahead with plans for a political union that would involve joint foreign and defense policies, the Saudi foreign minister said in a speech at the weekend.

The comments by Prince Saud al-Faisal come two weeks ahead of a summit of U.S.-aligned Gulf leaders in Riyadh that will review an outline for such a union after Saudi King Abdullah first floated the idea last December. […]

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Analysis: Bahrain hardliners in driving seat after F1 fiasco

Tuesday, 24. April 2012 21:01

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Tue Apr 24, 2012 7:06am EDT

(Reuters) – Hardliners in Bahrain’s Saudi-backed Sunni Muslim ruling family may dig in their heels after a Formula One Grand Prix debacle that spotlighted a frustrated pro-democracy uprising instead of projecting an image of stability.

Western leaders joined rights groups and media watchdogs in criticizing Bahrain before Sunday’s race, which was cancelled last year due to the unrest. Officials hailed its reinstatement as proof of a return to calm, but billowing smoke from tires set alight by protesters on race day told a different story. […]

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Bahrain hardliners in driving seat after F1 fiasco

Tuesday, 24. April 2012 0:04

(Reuters) – Hardliners in Bahrain’s Saudi-backed Sunni Muslim ruling family may dig in their heels after a Formula One Grand Prix debacle that spotlighted a frustrated pro-democracy uprising instead of projecting an image of stability. […]

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Bahrain protester died of birdshot wounds: relative

Monday, 23. April 2012 21:08

By Warda Al-Jawahiry and Hamad Mohammed

MANAMA | Mon Apr 23, 2012 4:41pm EDT

(Reuters) – A Bahraini protester found dead on a rooftop after clashes with police during the Formula One Grand Prix at the weekend was apparently killed by birdshot rounds and his body bore several bruises, his brother said on Monday.

Salah Abbas Habib, 36, was buried on Monday after a funeral attended by about 15,000 people, a Reuters witness said. After the ceremony, hundreds of protesters threw petrol bombs and stones at a police station in the district of al-Bilad al-Qadeem in the capital Manama. Police fired teargas and sound grenades.

His brother told Reuters before the funeral that a coroner’s report had concluded that Habib died of birdshot wounds to the chest and abdomen.

“We just got the body back. He had birdshot wounds in his chest and abdomen,” Hussein Abbas Habib said by telephone from Manama, adding that the body also had bad bruises on the hands, back and legs.

Ruled by the Al Khalifa family, Bahrain has been in turmoil since mainly Shi’ite pro-democracy protests that erupted last year, which were put down in March 2011 with the help of troops from fellow Sunni-led Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia.

Majority Shi’ites complain they have long been marginalized.

Bahrain’s Interior Ministry has already said it is launching an investigation into Habib’s death.

The dead man took part in overnight protests on Friday but had to flee after riot police arrived to disperse demonstrators and came after him, his brother said.

He hid on a roof, he added, citing witnesses. He was found dead soon after that.

Mohammed al-Maskati of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights told Reuters that witnesses said Habib had been hit while running away from police.

OPPOSITION SEES IMPASSE

The leader of the main opposition party warned on Monday that the conflict in Bahrain would grow more violent if the government did not undertake political reform.

“We want to sit down and talk to them, but they are refusing to enter a dialogue with us. They put obstacles and diversions to present a picture of reforms that actually only reconfirm and reinstate the dictatorship,” Sheikh Ali Salman told Reuters in an interview.

“We have reached an impasse. This government is not serious about having a real dialogue, to listen to the demands of the Bahraini people and implement those demands which cannot be ignored,” he said.

In a separate development, Amnesty International on Monday criticized a Bahraini appeals court for delaying until April 30 a hearing for a group of protest leaders sentenced over last year’s uprising, including one who has been on a hunger strike for more than two months.

“The Bahrain authorities’ delaying tactics are toying with the life of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who is on death’s doorstep as he enters his 75th day on hunger strike,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, an Amnesty regional deputy director, said in a statement.

Sponsors who ploughed money into Formula One have been left squirming after the motor sport’s organizers ignored opposition calls to cancel the race.

But Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone said “there is no such thing as bad publicity”, putting a positive spin on the race, which drew widespread condemnation from abroad and became a focus for anti-government protests in the small island kingdom.

Britain’s Channel 4 said on its website on Monday that its three-man news team had been deported after being detained on Sunday.

While motor sports journalists were invited to cover the race, reporters from Reuters and some other news organizations who usually write about Middle East politics were denied visas. Channel 4 said its team had been working without accreditation.

“So when we were caught filming a planned demonstration in one of the Shia villages, they have not been particularly pleasant,” correspondent Jonathan Miller said in a posting on the website.

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Analysis: No winner in the real contest of Bahrain’s Grand Prix

Sunday, 22. April 2012 21:05

Sunday, April 22, 2012 1:25 p.m. CDT

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI (Reuters) – Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel may have won the Bahrain Grand Prix, but there was no winner in the main event: a public relations battle between the ruling Al Khalifa family and protesters in the streets over competing visions of Bahrain.

Masked youths with petrol bombs faced off nightly against riot police in armored vehicles, armed with batons, tear gas, sound bombs and guns firing birdshot. At least one protester was found dead on a rooftop after a clash.

Demonstrators denounced the Grand Prix as a lavish stunt by a government that crushed Arab Spring protests last year and remains out of touch with popular demand for change.

The government accused activists of exaggerating the unrest and sabotaging the country’s image.

“In terms of the public relations battle it’s been a loss for government. But no one won overall – I think it has added to the existing divisions,” said Jane Kinninmont, an analyst at London’s Chatham House think tank.

“The opposition are more angry about deaths and beatings, while the pro-government camp is upset that the protesters hold up economic development and shocked at the media coverage.”

The race was cancelled last year after Arab Spring protests, mainly by the Shi’ite Muslim majority whose members feel marginalized by a minority Sunni elite.

The government put last year’s protests down by force, swept demonstrators off the streets and bulldozed the highway roundabout where they were camping. Thirty-five people, including members of the security forces, died in the crackdown.

According to an independent commission set up by the government, many of those arrested were tortured in custody.

When Washington, which has its regional naval headquarters in Bahrain, threatened to cancel an arms deal, the kingdom took its reputation seriously.

“ONE NATION”

The race was marketed in Bahrain with the slogans “uniF1ed” and “one nation, one celebration”.

“I would like to wish all the Formula One teams today the best of luck,” King Hamad said in a message on Sunday before the race, “And thank you for showing your faith in our country by coming here.”

Bahrain says it is implementing the independent commission’s recommendations for democratic reforms and life is returning to normal. But the uprising never fully went away and clashes between protesters and police have increased in recent months.

The demonstrators, largely ignored by the Gulf-dominated pan-Arab media, saw the Grand Prix as a chance to take their grievances to the world stage and the government seems to have scored an own goal by barring some non-sports journalists.

“They basically said ‘you’re only welcome if you only cover Formula One’. But some went to find what they were trying to hide,” said Alaa Shehabi, an opposition activist. “The whole media strategy of the last year has backfired. It was focused on hiring PR companies to push their message to journalists.”

The opposition parties, which include secular and Islamist Shi’ites as well as some Sunnis, want democratic reforms that would empower parliament to form governments and end tight Al Khalifa family control of public life.

More radical elements among the protesters – angered by continuing deaths due to the daily fights with police – want to ditch the monarchy altogether.

They all share a sense of discrimination by an entrenched elite around the ruling family, which brought in Saudi troops last year to help crush the uprising.

Fourteen men jailed by a military court for leading the protests last year remain behind bars, and one of them is in critical condition after more than 70 days on hunger strike.

The death toll in protests since last year now has risen to more than 80, leading opposition party Wefaq says, with many of the deaths due to the effects of massive use of teargas.

The government – which questions the causes of death and dismisses the protesters as hooligans – appears to have been taken by surprise that its narrative came into question.

It has depicted the entire opposition movement as driven by Shi’ite sectarian interests and beholden to Iran, and argued that the Bahrain turmoil is not an ‘Arab Spring’ event.

Washington has tempered criticisms with concern not to jeopardize ties with a country seen as key to its effort, coordinated with Saudi Arabia, to contain Iran.

But Western officials joined media watchdogs and rights groups in delivering some criticism of Bahrain as the opposition movement succeeded in winning coverage of large marches and protests, despite a massive police effort to pin them down in neighborhoods away from Manama and main roads.

There were signs that some of Bahrain’s elite recognized hosting the event had backfired by giving the opposition a target. One columnist even said so in a newspaper – a rarity in a country where virtually all papers and radio are under the government’s thumb.

“It was obvious that specific media launched a campaign in recent days with one aim: cancellation of F1,” Mohammed Mubarak Jumaa wrote in Akhbar al-Khaleej. “Bahrain should change its policy now on hosting large events.”

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Friday, 20. April 2012 21:03

DUBAI | Fri Apr 20, 2012 2:16pm IST

(Reuters) – Media freedom groups have accused Bahrain of using this weekend’s Formula One motor race as a propaganda exercise to improve its international image, saying it wants to stop journalists reporting on anti-government protests.

As police fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse demonstrators on Thursday, Bahrain prevented a foreign reporter from entering the country after turning away a journalist working for a U.S. news agency earlier in the week.

Several others including a Reuters correspondent were still waiting for entry visas as Formula One cars took to the track for Friday’s first practice session amid tight security.

Reuters photographer Ahmed Jadallah and protesters react after police used a flashbang sound grenade during an anti-government rally demanding the release of human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja in Manama April 18, 2012. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

“Bahrain wants the international attention brought by hosting a Grand Prix but doesn’t want foreign journalists to wander from the race track where they might see political protests,” said Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.

“Bahrain tells the outside world it has nothing to hide. If that’s the case then it must allow journalists entry visas and let them report freely,” he added.

Bahrain has been in turmoil since a democracy movement erupted more than a year ago. The Arab Spring protests were initially crushed with the loss of dozens of lives, including those of security personnel, but youths still clash daily with riot police and protesters have promised to disrupt Sunday’s race with “a day of rage”.

Bahrain’s chief of public security said a number of “rioters and vandals” had been arrested for taking part in unlawful protests. Officials at the Information Affairs Authority did not respond to a Reuters request for comment on CPJ’s assertions.

The Reporters Without Borders group also attacked Bahrain’s handling of the Grand Prix, which was cancelled last year due to the protests but which is due to go ahead on Sunday.

The group said it was “launching a campaign and a petition condemning the appallingly repressive policies of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s government since the start of the Arab Spring and its current propaganda focus on the Formula One Grand Prix”.

Thomson Reuters (TRI.N), the New York-based parent of Reuters, is a sponsor of the Williams team which is entered for Sunday’s race.

A number of journalists who cover the full Formula One World Championship season are already in Bahrain for the Grand Prix. However, a Dubai-based sports reporter for the Associated Press, one of two from the U.S. news agency accredited to cover the Grand Prix, said he was turned back at Manama’s airport this week.

A journalist from Britain’s Financial Times said he had spent several hours at the airport on Thursday trying in vain to gain entry, before booking a flight back out.

PROTESTS INTENSIFY

Protests have intensified in the week leading up to the race as mostly Shi’ite Muslims take to the streets. The country’s Sunni elite crushed last year’s uprising, bringing in troops from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, and more than 30 people including security personnel died.

In February the government introduced temporary visa restrictions for some Western nationals, limited international rights groups to five-day visas and delayed a trip by the U.N.’s chief investigator into torture to July.

A Reuters Formula One correspondent who covers the entire Grand Prix season has been allowed into Bahrain along with a television producer and photographer.

However, Dubai-based Reuters correspondent Andrew Hammond was among the reporters still awaiting visas late on Thursday, along with others from the AP and Agence France Presse.

“We cover sports events throughout the world, under all kinds of circumstances, and we see no reason that journalists should be prevented from coverage in Bahrain,” said AP’s Managing Editor for Sports Lou Ferrara. “The government should not dictate or prohibit sports coverage in any way. We hope to see a favorable resolution soon.”

In May 2011, Bahrain expelled the previous Reuters correspondent assigned to cover the country. Reuters employs about 3,000 journalists worldwide.

Bahrain declined to issue visas to some journalists during martial law last year and when protests swelled on the February 14 first anniversary of the uprising. One Dubai-based journalist said he was called by the information ministry in February telling him not to come although he had already been issued a visa.

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Game of brinkmanship in Bahrain over hunger strike

Thursday, 19. April 2012 20:51

By Andrew Hammond and Warda Al-Jawahiry

MANAMA/DUBAI | Thu Apr 19, 2012 11:54am BST

(Reuters) – Bahrain’s government and a jailed Shi’ite rights activist who is on hunger strike are playing a game of brinkmanship as his health deteriorates days before the Formula One Grand Prix, a showcase event for the Gulf state as its grapples with political unrest.

To release Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, one of 14 men in prison for leading an uprising last year, would be a comedown for a government that has failed to quell a movement led by majority Shi’ites seeking democratic reforms that would reduce the Sunni dynasty’s power.

But his death would be a disaster, creating a martyr who would galvanise the street and risk spoiling government efforts to persuade Western allies that reform at the pace of its choosing is working.

Bahrain is the base for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and Washington has only gently prodded its Saudi-allied rulers to improve human rights and push forward political reforms.

Thirty-five people were killed during the uprising last year, including five from torture, as well as security personnel.

“Neither of them want to back down and it’s quite difficult for either of them to do so,” said Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House in London.

His family also sees a government in dilemma.

“He is a pain in the neck for them but they don’t want him to die also, that’s why they have taken him to their best hospital, in the royal wing,” his wife Khadija al-Mousawi said in an interview, wiping away tears.

“I also noticed the high number of nurses and doctors that were there in his wing when we went to visit, so the medical care is there – proof that they don’t want him to die. But at the same time they don’t want him free.”

The government said last week that Khawaja, now in a military hospital, was in good condition but that his life could be at risk if he keeps refusing food and medication.

Government officials were not available on Thursday to comment further on the situation.

Bahrain last week rejected a Danish proposal to release Khawaja to Denmark, where he also holds nationality. His daughter Maryam has been a critic of the government from her base there.

With the Formula One Grand Prix revving up this weekend, Khawaja’s failing health threatens to overshadow a prestigious event the government hopes will show the world that all is back to normal and the uprising is over.

This week two dissidents in London climbed the walls of Bahrain’s embassy to unfurl a poster of Khawaja from the roof.

He is also a focal point of daily anti-government protests, mostly in Shi’ite districts, that have increased in intensity in the days before the big race.

ONLY WATER

Khawaja, who has said he will fast to his death if he is not freed, says he will reduce his food intake to just water.

“He has decided to stop taking glucose in his water and taking food intravenously. He will only take water from today,” said Mohammed al-Jishi, a lawyer who has visited him regularly.

He said it was not clear if the authorities would force-feed him or not. Thursday is his 71th on the hunger strike.

Analysts say there is especially bad blood between Khawaja and the government.

He is one of eight serving life sentences, after he expressed support last year for Bahrain becoming a republic, and one of the jailed leaders who Sunni hardliners are particularly loathe to see shown leniency.

Some Sunnis and Shi’ites fear the rise of a Shi’ite opposition that could develop links with clerics in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. They dismiss claims of Shi’ite political and economic marginalisation, viewing the ruling family as protectors.

Jamal Fakhro, a pro-government Sunni who is deputy head of the appointed house of parliament and often reflects official thinking, sought to play down Khawaja’s significance.

“Abdulhadi is definitely not a national figure. He and the rest of the human rights people have their own political agenda but they use the rights route to present their case,” he told Reuters.

STREET HERO

But he is idolised on the Shi’ite street as a political rights activist who refuses to compromise.

“He is everything to us, he is my faith and hope. If anything goes wrong with him we will never forgive ourselves, and the regime will regret that,” said Sayed, an activist in his 20s from the mainly Shi’ite town of Aali.

Khawaja, who helped found the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, is also well-known in the international rights arena. He has worked with Front-Line Defenders and Amnesty International, conducting research in Iraq in 2003.

“He is well-respected outside the country. We have never seen him condoning violence at all, so we are very comfortable saying he is a prisoner of conscience,” said Said Boumedouha, an Amnesty International researcher.

“He was arrested on several occasions and he was very critical of the royal family, the prime minister and corruption in seminars. It goes back to that,” he said.

Khawaja’s family have identified him as case No. 8 in abuse recounted by unnamed detainees in the November report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which Manama formed after international pressure to investigate the unrest.

The detainee underwent surgery on his jaw after he was beaten up on arrest on April 8, 2011. The account says that abuse resumed eight days later, including beatings on the soles of his feet and being sodomized with a stick.

The report says the detainee went on hunger strike at that time in an effort to stop the torture.

Kinninmont said both Khawaja’s release or his death could deepen the divide that has gripped the island.

“Releasing him will be extremely divisive. But if he dies he would become Bahrain’s most well-known martyr, while another part of the population would say good riddance,” she said.

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Bahrain arrests protest leaders ahead of F1 amid torture reports

Wednesday, 18. April 2012 20:59

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Wed Apr 18, 2012 12:36am BST

(Reuters) – Bahrain has arrested at least 60 Shi’ite protest leaders in recent days to try to prevent widescale unrest ahead of a controversial Formula One Grand Prix this week, activists said on Tuesday.

News of the crackdown coincided with a statement from Amnesty International which said it was getting credible reports of the use of torture in the Gulf Arab state despite promises of reform.

A car passes information signs on a highway leading to the Bahrain International Circuit at Sakhir, south of Manama, April 17, 2012. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

“The authorities are trying to portray the country as being on the road to reform, but we continue to receive reports of torture and use of unnecessary and excessive force against protests,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director, said in a statement.

“Their reforms have only scratched the surface.”

Bahrain is gearing up to host a prestigious Grand Prix on April 20-22, an event that was cancelled last year because of unrest and one it hopes will improve its international image and show it is serious about reform.

In particular, it is eager to show that the country’s Sunni Muslim rulers have repaired relations with the majority Muslim Shi’ite community after last year’s protests, which were put down with the help of troops from neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain’s Shi’ites complain they are given fewer opportunities and access to jobs and housing than the Sunni elite.

But activists said on Tuesday that relations between the two communities were still badly strained by routine violence.

They said riot police had used live ammunition for the first time since last year’s pro-democracy protest movement was crushed, firing bullets into the air.

“We have evidence in photographs and video from April 13 in Diraz and Sitra,” said Mohammed al-Maskati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.

ARRESTS

The Shi’ite-led opposition holds weekly large-scale rallies calling for democratic reform, while Shi’ite youths clash nightly with riot police.

“It started in Bani Jamra last Thursday, then Sitra, Ghuraifa, Diraz, Ma’amir and Sehla,” said Maskati.

“Those arrested are activists in the villages. The authorities are afraid that some people will go to protest in Manama or close to the area of the race.”

Sixty people remained in custody, he said.

Interior ministry spokesmen and foreign advisers were not available to confirm the arrests or the use of live fire.

Violence has escalated in Bahrain, a key U.S. ally that hosts its Fifth Fleet, ahead of the Grand Prix.

Sayed Yousif al-Muhafda of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, a separate group, also said police had seized dozens seen as protest organisers in late-night raids in the past week.

Separately, Amnesty said Bahrain’s government has failed to adopt key reforms recommended by an international panel of human rights experts. Bahrain government officials were not immediately available to comment.

The government brought in a commission of human rights experts last year to propose reforms. The government later said the kingdom had agreed to a new police code of conduct and had set up a body to investigate accusations that government employees killed or mistreated citizens.

Amnesty said some of the commission’s proposals had been adopted, but said a lot more needed to be done.

“In particular, holding to account senior members of the security forces accused of violations, releasing prisoners of conscience and addressing the underlying discrimination against the Shi’ite majority population,” it said.

Thirty-five people died during the unrest last year, but since martial law ended in June the total has risen to around 70, activists say. They cite heavy use of tear gas, but the government questions whether the gas killed anyone.

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Sunnis seek own voice in Bahrain’s turmoil

Wednesday, 4. April 2012 23:22

(Reuters) – Bahrain’s Sunni Muslim minority, fearful of Shi’ite political assertiveness, is spawning factions that rail against compromise with the island’s sectarian majority, while nursing their own grudges against its Sunni ruling family. […]

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Sunnis seek own voice in Bahrain’s turmoil

Wednesday, 4. April 2012 20:53

By Andrew Hammond

MANAMA | Wed Apr 4, 2012 5:34pm EDT

(Reuters) – Bahrain’s Sunni Muslim minority, fearful of Shi’ite political assertiveness, is spawning factions that rail against compromise with the island’s sectarian majority, while nursing their own grudges against its Sunni ruling family.

The emergence of hardline Sunni groups is further evidence of sectarian polarization in Bahrain, where a Shi’ite-led opposition movement persists despite the crushing of the mass protests it organized during last year’s burst of Arab revolts.

Shi’ite reformists want an end to the Al Khalifa family’s monopoly on political and economic power. Some radicals have demanded the monarchy be scrapped in favor of a republic.

The loyalist Sunni backlash, once seen as a card played by the authorities, may now upset even any royal hopes of opening a dialogue to calm a conflict that has shredded Bahrain’s social cohesion and cost its tourism- and banking-based economy dearly.

While Sunni hardliners are divided among themselves, some have begun to articulate grievances about corruption, access to housing, and suspected government efforts to alter Bahrain’s demography that mirror those of the Shi’ites they revile.

Sunni voices have clamored for the government to resist the pressure of opposition rallies, clashes with riot police and quiet Western prodding for a resolution.

In social media, Shi’ites and protesters are attacked as “monkeys”, “traitors” and “followers of Iran“, picking up a frequent charge that politicized Shi’ites are pawns of the Islamic Republic, a large non-Arab, Shi’ite Gulf neighbor.

In the northern, mainly Sunni, district of Muharraq, al Qaeda slogans are among the graffiti on some walls and a large poster outside a Sunni Islamist party’s headquarters depicts a donkey with the caption: “I’m going to dialogue!”

Hardcore Sunnis are alarmed by talks that the powerful royal court minister has held in recent weeks with the leading Shi’ite party Wefaq and secular opposition groups on a possible dialogue to halt turmoil that has deterred investors and slowed economic growth to 2.2 percent last year from 4.5 percent in 2010.

“The worst thing is happening now in Bahrain, that the state is flirting with the followers of the Safavids,” wrote Sunni Islamist Mohammed Khalid on Twitter, using the name of a 16th century Persian dynasty to refer to Iran and Shi’ites. “The Sunnis are on the point of exploding.”

Host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain has remained turbulent in the year since the authorities quelled Shi’ite-led protests that erupted after popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Daily street protests and clashes have caused continuing casualties.

The conflict drew in regional players. Saudi Arabia sent in troops to back the government, while Iranian media provide a soapbox to Shi’ites mostly excluded from Gulf-owned Arab outlets.

A senior Western diplomat voiced concern about the apparently widening Sunni-Shi’ite rift in Bahrain.

“People moving from the middle ground into the certainty of sectarianism is a challenge,” the diplomat said. “A lot of voices are for retribution not reconciliation, though I think they are still a minority of Sunni voices.”

COMPLIANT SUNNIS?

With the Shi’ite street behind them, opposition parties tend to view the Sunni hardline groups – who include some Shi’ite Arab nationalists – as noise created by the government that could easily be silenced in the event of a deal.

But some wonder whether the Sunnis can still be manipulated so easily – and whether they could start pushing harder for reforms themselves, despite their fear of Shi’ite numerical strength in a more democratic political system.

Abdulhalim Murad, a Sunni lawmaker of the Salafi Asala party, says Sunni anger is running too high to tolerate any concessions to Wefaq, a well-organized political machine that has won almost half the seats in previous parliaments.

“If all parties are serious about entering a dialogue, I think everybody should stop violence in the street. Those people (Shi’ites) are trying to murder policemen,” Murad said.

“It’s obvious they are trying to harm the economy to pressure the government,” he said, warning of a possible violent response if Wefaq gained cabinet seats in the current climate.

Sunni vigilantes attacked a Shi’ite religious procession during the Ashura commemoration in December and a protester was shot dead last week by an unknown assailant.

So far the Sunni “opposition to the opposition”, as its critics dub it, has struggled to maintain unity.

Shortly after the protests erupted in February 2011, an umbrella organization called the National Unity Gathering emerged, headed by a Sunni cleric, in a state-backed effort to create a mass movement to challenge the protesters.

But the main organized Sunni parties, Asala and Minbar, an ideological affiliate of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, pulled out amid personality disputes and disagreements over leadership.

“It’s the first time the Sunnis have been mobilized but they don’t know what they want. All they agree on is that they are opposed to the opposition,” said Ala’a Shehabi, an opposition activist. “That’s not enough to unify them as a group.”

‘NOT A GAME’

Surpassing the Gathering is the Fateh Awakening, a new Brotherhood-linked youth group feted in state and pro-government media. It drew 30,000 people to a Manama rally in February at which speakers attacked Gulf Arab Shi’ites as pawns of Iran.

Anas Bomtaia, spokesman for the Sunni group, denied it was doing the bidding of the authorities.

“I’m not a game in the hand of government or anyone else. Some senior government figures tried to buy us but we didn’t accept a penny,” he said, adding Wefaq should “apologize” for provoking a sectarian split with the February 14 uprising. “We have rejected dialogue and that shows we are against the government.”

Sunni politicians list demands that also come up at Wefaq rallies, including a greater say for Bahrainis in a system now dominated by the royal family. An uncle of the king has held the post of prime minister for more than four decades.

“We think that the government is not serious about fighting corruption – administrative and moral corruption,” said Bomtaia, referring to the phenomenon of migrant prostitution. “We said there has to be equality between us all and the Khalifa family.”

The Salafis agree they share some interests with Shi’ites.

“We have a lot of requirements in common. They are living with us, this is the reality. We all live in the same land,” said Murad. Acknowledging a key opposition grievance, he also said there had been a degree of “political naturalization”.

Shi’ites often accuse the authorities of granting foreigners from predominantly Sunni countries nationality to shift the sectarian balance. Protesters say riot police contain an increasing number of Pakistanis and non-Bahraini Arabs.

The government denies any sectarian naturalization policy.

Some analysts question its commitment to dialogue, arguing that the emergence of the Gathering, the Awakening and others is a state effort to multiply the voices raised against the Wefaq-led opposition, which includes some Sunnis and secular parties.

“I would be surprised if this dialogue being discussed now will ever have representatives of all groups in the same room,” said Justin Gengler, a Doha-based researcher on Bahrain.

“Sunnis and Shi’ites making demands at the same time for substantive changes and concessions – that’s not something the authorities are prepared for.”

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