Bahrain crackdown widens; dissent comes from roofs

Last Updated: Sat, Mar 19, 2011 23:00 hrs

The nighttime cries of dissent went out from the rooftops shortly after the text messages came through. For nearly 15 minutes, just as the messages exhorted, they called out to the sky: "God is Great!" as soldiers and police took hold of the streets below.

In the capital, Manama, and in Shiite villages like Sitra, the hub of Bahrain's oil industry, Bahrain's crackdown on the monthlong uprising expanded, drawing the full fury of the Sunni monarchy and its Saudi-led allies, who see the Shiite demands for a say in running the country as a threat to the 200-year-old rule.

Bahrain's royal family is gambling that it can survive the sectarian faultlines that splinter the kingdom and the region, with the help of a 1,500-strong force led by the Saudis to bolster a government that the Gulf's Sunni leaders — and the U.S. — see as a bulwark against Shiite Iran's expanding military ambitions.

As night fell, residents of Sitra and other Shiite villages outside the capital Manama braced for new violence, stocking up on provisions. Young men armed with sticks, stones and kitchen knives geared up to confront Bahrain's army.

"We are not afraid, but we are cautious because we know they came here to kill us," said Mohammed Said, a 30-year-old from Sitra, pushing a supermarket cart packed with frozen chicken, bottled water, chickpeas and bread.

As the curfew went into effect, people shouted "God Is Great" from across Manama's rooftops. Opposition leaders sent texts earlier, asking people to shout twice every night "to tell the army your tanks cannot silence us." The cries mirrored a protest used last year by Iran's opposition, who would cry out "God is Great!" from rooftops at night at the height of that regime's crackdown.

The U.S. has made Bahrain home to the Navy's 5th Fleet, counting on the Sunni rulers who endured Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and waves of unrest among the Shiite majority, long complaining of persecution and economic inequality.

But the ruling system — which just two weeks ago appealed for negotiations with majority Shiites — now appears to be trying to crush the opposition, imposing a three-month emergency rule that gives the military wide powers to battle the pro-democracy uprising inspired by the revolts across the Arab world.

"We are afraid, because they are determined to make war," said another Sitra resident, Muslim Abdel Hussein. "But this is not a military problem, it's political. We are citizens. We want rights, that's all."

Two protesters killed last month in Manama were buried in Sitra, an island and a port city southwest of the capital. The Shiite town was also the site of the worst confrontations on Tuesday when the king declared a state of emergency. A 24-year-old was killed and hundreds of others were injured by shotgun blasts and clubs, according to Dr. Ibrahim Youssef of the Sitra Health Center.

Shiites account for 70 percent of the half-million population, but are widely excluded from high-level posts. What started Feb. 15 as a protest for rights, however, has since spiraled into widespread calls for an end to the Sunni monarchy.

The rulers and their backers are using everything at their disposal, while Shiites hope sheer demographics will be their most potent weapon. The European Union and NATO echoed U.S. calls for Bahrain to refrain from violence and try to settle the crisis through dialogue.

The crackdown widened on Thursday with the detention of at least seven activists.

"I saw men in black pointing a machine gun at my husband saying just one thing: 'We are from the state security,'" said Farida Guhlam, wife of Sunni liberal leader Ibrahim Sharif, who had joined in demands that the monarchy loosen its grip on power.

As the nighttime curfew approached, clashes broke out in villages outside the capital Manama with police trying to establish control over Shiite areas.

Riot police fired tear gas on several dozen protesters trying to march in the mostly Shiite Manama suburb of Jidhafs, less than a half-mile (one kilometer) from Pearl Square, the former center of the protest.

As the clash unfolded, residents tried to block police vehicles with makeshift barricades including metal tables, pieces of wood and even gym weights.

Security forces overwhelmed parts of central Manama, a day after overrunning the protesters' Pearl Square camp in an assault that left at least five people dead — two policemen and three protesters, according to opposition groups and the government. Nearly all stores and banks were closed, traffic was light and streets were all but devoid of pedestrians.

An 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew was in force and movement was restricted around the country. Bahraini authorities expelled a CNN reporter and briefly detained a reporter for The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Doctors at the country's main hospital said it remained under control of security forces, blocking physicians from leaving a complex whose mostly Shiite personnel are viewed with suspicion by authorities.

The Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights said those taken into custody Thursday include Hassan Mushaima and Abdul Jalil al-Sangaece — who were among 25 Shiite activists on trial on charges of trying to overthrow the nation's Sunni rulers.

The case was dropped to calm tensions last month — and Mushaima returned from a self-imposed exile — but the latest sweeps suggest authorities have abandoned efforts at dialogue and are trying to silence opposition leaders.

The Youth Society group said the detained also include Shiite activists Abdul Wahad Hussein and Hassan Hadad.

A senior opposition leader, Abdul Jalil Khalil, also said a prominent Shiite cleric, Abdul Hadi al-Mokhdar, was taken into custody. Also in custody was Saeed al Nouri from the Haq movement.

In a rare hint of an agreement, both Washington and Tehran condemned the military force unleashed at protesters. Iran, which has had no major political ties to Bahrain's Shiites, recalled its ambassador to protest the Gulf troops backing the government against the Shiite protests calling Saudi-led military reinforcements "unacceptable."

Britain has urged all its citizens to leave Bahrain unless they have a "pressing reason" to remain. Charter flights were arranged to Dubai.


Associated Press writers Reem Khalifa in Manama, Brian Murphy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.