Bahrain hints at evidence of Iran protest links

Last Updated: Mon, Nov 28, 2011 18:58 hrs

In a 500-page report detailing widespread abuses in Bahrain's crackdowns, it's a brief section on Iran that has brought the strongest pushback Thursday in the Gulf kingdom — authorities clinging to their claims that Tehran had a role in the Shiite-led uprising despite the report's findings.

Bahrain suggested it may have classified intelligence of Iranian links to the 10-month-old unrest, though independent investigators said they found nothing to back the allegations.

The report's short reference to Iran touches some of the most powerful Arab Spring narratives among the Gulf's Sunni leaders. Accusations about plotting by Shiite giant Iran have been used to justify crushing measures, such as sending Saudi-led military forces to reinforce Bahrain's embattled monarchy.

It also reflects the bolder political strategies by Gulf nations to get involved in uprisings elsewhere — such Saudi's leaders mediating a possible exit for Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh — while keeping unwavering pressure on suspected Iran-leaning dissent at home. Saudi's Interior Ministry said at least four people have been killed this week in clashes in the heavily Shiite city of Qatif.

The findings by a special commission that investigated Bahrain's turmoil were a direct slap at fears by the Western-allied Gulf states that Iran seeks to use Bahrain as a foothold to try to undermine the region's Sunni regimes. The commission released a major report Wednesday.

The official Bahrain News Agency said national security concerns prevented sharing all intelligence on Iran with the commission. Officials in Iran have sharply denounced the crackdowns on Bahrain's Shiite majority, but they insist Iran has no direct ties to the conflict.

The news agency also repeated statements by Bahrain's king that Iranian propaganda has fueled bloodshed and clashes on the strategic island, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Earlier this month, Bahrain claimed it dismantled an Iranian-linked terror cell that plotted attacks on high-profile targets including the Saudi Embassy.

Mustafa Alani, a regional analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center, said Bahraini officials are in a "difficult position" by their claims of protecting sensitive intelligence while openly accusing some Shiite activists of working with Iranian agents.

The special commission's report — authorized by Bahrain's rulers in a bid to ease tensions — highlighted details of abuses, including torture, excessive force and legal shortcomings under a special security court.

At least 35 people have been killed in violence related to the uprising, including several members of the security forces.

Bahrain's Shiites comprise about 70 percent of the island nation's 525,000 citizens. They have complained of widespread discrimination, such as being blocked from top government or military posts. The monarchy has offered some concessions but refused to bow to protest demands to surrender control of top positions and main policies.

Many of the report's conclusions had been previously noted by rights groups and opposition activists.

The burden fell on Bahrain's authorities to prove their charges of Iranian links to the protests.

The report said evidence presented by Bahrain's government "does not establish a discernible link between specific incidents" during the time period studied from February and March.

The commission noted that most of the government's claims on Iranian involvement related to alleged intelligence operations, making them impossible to independently investigate "due to security and confidentiality considerations."

Bahrain's king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, lashed back at the findings, insisting Tehran's role was clear to "all who have eyes and ears."

He pointed to Iran's Arabic-language broadcasts that "fueled the flames of sectarian strife," but gave no details on the extent of possible secret intelligence that was not shared.

Bahrain is a critical U.S. ally, and Washington has taken a cautious line: Urging Bahrain's leaders to open more dialogue with the opposition, but avoiding too much public pressure.

In Washington, the White House on Wednesday commended the king for appointing the commission and said in a statement that it is "incumbent upon the government of Bahrain to hold accountable those responsible for human rights violations and put in place institutional changes to ensure that such abuses do not happen again."

A statement by the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, urged Bahraini authorities to "open a new chapter ... of national reconciliation."


Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Adam Schreck in Dubai contributed to this report.