Bahraini security forces arrested opposition leaders and accused them of having ties with foreign countries, a day after Iran withdrew its ambassador to protest the growing crackdown against mostly Shiite demonstrators.
Those arrested included Hassan Mushaima, a leader of the Shiite Haq movement, and Ebrahim Sharif, head of the opposition National Democratic Action Society, according to a statement today from al-Wefaq, the largest Shiite opposition party. Al-Wefaq said six people were arrested; the state-run Bahrain news agency gave no number.
Bahrain has been struggling to quell more than a month of protests led by Shiites calling for democracy and increased civil rights. About a dozen people have been killed in the protests. Shiites make up about 70 percent of the population and many retain cultural and family ties with Iran, as well as with Shiites in Saudi Arabia, who are a minority of about 10 to 15 percent.
“The government may be trying to present it as a Sunni-Shiite confrontation and also to label the opposition as being acolytes of the Iranians,” Lord Eric Avebury, vice-chair of the UK Parliamentary Human Rights Group said in a telephone interview. “That is also false.”
Bahrain’s BB All Share Index rose 0.1 percent as trading resumed after a one-day suspension. Fitch Ratings lowered the country’s foreign-debt rating by two levels on March 15 and said another downgrade is possible.
The government declared a three-month state of emergency on March 15 after troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states arrived to support the administration.
The protests have fueled Saudi fears that unrest may spread to the kingdom, which holds about 20 percent of global oil reserves. Crude oil for April delivery rose $2.28, or 2.3 percent, to $100.26 a barrel at 10:39 a.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
In Saudi Arabia, about 1,000 people in the eastern city of al-Qatif defied a ban on demonstrations and protested peacefully yesterday to demand the country’s troops end their incursion into neighboring Bahrain.
Almost 1,000 Kuwaiti Shiites demonstrated in Kuwait City today in solidarity with the Bahraini protests. An estimated 30 percent of Kuwait is Shiite.
The state-run Bahrain News Agency said the opposition leaders were arrested for “contacting foreign countries.”
“The General Command of the Bahrain Defense Force will take all necessary legal measures” against those arrested, it said.
Iran recalled its ambassador to Bahrain, Mehdi Agha-Jafari, late yesterday to protest the crackdown, state-run Mehr news agency reported.
Bahrain earlier recalled its envoy to Tehran after Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast referred to the deployment of Gulf troops as “meddling.”
Bahraini police and soldiers today set up checkpoints on streets in the capital and could be seen searching cars and questioning several young men who they removed from vehicles.
Riot police forced protesters from their main gathering point at the Pearl Roundabout yesterday. Two members of al-Wefaq were killed, the group said, while two policemen died when they were hit by a car during the operation.
After the clashes, the military imposed a curfew on parts of the country from 4 p.m. until 4 a.m. and banned protests and public gatherings.
“The authorities are doing everything they can possibly do to bring calm back to the city and villages,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “They are also arresting these leaders because tomorrow is Friday and after prayers is usually a fairly explosive time in the region. This Friday will be no exception.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the violence “alarming.”
“We have made it very clear to the Bahraini government at the highest levels that we expect them to exercise restraint,” Clinton said in an interview with CBS News, taped in Cairo. “We would remind them of their humanitarian obligation to keep medical facilities open and to facilitate the treatment of the injured, and to get back to the negotiating table.”
Bahrain is a logistical hub and command center for U.S. naval operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean. It is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which protects oil-supply lines that pass through the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.
King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has offered a national dialogue and Crown Prince Salman has said he’s committed to talks. Opposition groups have dismissed the offers.
To help Bahrain finance social spending that would meet some opposition demands, Gulf states on March 10 said they plan to provide the country with $10 billion over a decade. Oman, which has also seen protests, was allocated a similar sum.