Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Saudi troops intervene to shore up Bahrain’s monarchy

By Michael Birnbaum and Karen DeYoung, Monday, March 14, 10:10 PM

The Washington Post

DAMMAM, Saudi Arabia — Saudi armored personnel carriers rolled over a causeway into Bahrain on Monday in an extraordinary intervention aimed at helping a neighboring Sunni monarchy bring an end to weeks of Shiite-led protests that have unnerved kingdoms and emirates throughout the Persian Gulf region.
An opposition spokesman in Bahrain denounced the move as “a declaration of war,’’ and the White House responded with concern, saying that it would be “counterproductive’’ to respond to the grievances of peaceful protesters with anything other than dialogue.
The intervention appeared to demonstrate that Bahrain’s neighbors will do whatever is necessary to bring an end to unrest that has threatened the region’s smallest and weakest kingdom.
“Bahrain is a red line,’’ a senior Saudi official said. He said more than 1,000 troops from Saudi Arabia and at least 600 more from the United Arab Emirates would be sent to Bahrain as part of an intervention authorized by the Gulf Cooperation Council on Sunday in response to a direct request from Bahrain.
The purpose was “to protect the institutions of the Bahraini state and critical infrastructure,’’ the Saudi official said, adding that the force could grow in response to Bahrain’s needs.
The move is bound to raise the stakes in a month-old conflict that has paralyzed Bahrain. Protesters, most from the country’s Shiite majority, want major changes or even an end to a Sunni monarchy under the ruling Khalifa family. Bahrain’s own defense force includes only about 9,000 personnel.
The United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister, Abdallah bin Zayid Al Nuhayyan, said Monday that the move was intended to “get calm and order in Bahrain and to help both the Bahraini government and the people to reach a solution.”
The Saudi official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his government had not authorized public statements on the matter, said the arriving troops would protect ministries, power plants and other infrastructure. “That’s what they asked for, and that’s what we provided,” he said. The protests, he said, were an “internal Bahraini matter for the Bahrainis to sort out. They just don’t have the capacity to protect their institutions as well.”
The intervention marks the first time that the gulf council has dispatched a military force in response to domestic unrest. The group is composed of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman, and had activated a joint force only once in the past, to help protect Kuwait from Iraq in the 1990s.
The Saudi official said that his government had told the White House on Sunday of its plans to intervene. A senior Obama administration official confirmed this Monday night in Paris, telling reporters, “We were informed just before [but] not consulted.”
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney would say only that the administration had long “made clear’’ that gulf nations should “show restraint and . . . honor the peaceful protesters by not using force against them.”
The protesters in Bahrain have been demonstrating since mid-February. They have been calling for democratic reforms and an end to what they say is discrimination against Shiites by the Sunni monarchy.
Saudi Arabia, whose royal family is also Sunni, has feared that if Bahrain’s Shiite majority gained power, Iran would gain a foothold just off the Saudi kingdom’s eastern shore, although U.S. officials have said that they do not believe Iran is involved in the protests. Saudi officials have also worried that Bahraini protesters could embolden Saudi Arabia’s own large Shiite population in nearby Eastern Province, which is home to much of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves. Last week, Saudi forces opened fire on a demonstration in Qatif, a Shiite city in the province, wounding at least two protesters.
Protesters have in recent days used barricades to shut down large swaths of Manama, the capital, and Bahraini security forces have fought back with tear gas and rubber bullets. Pro-government civilians have in some cases attacked protesters with sticks, knives and swords; the protesters have responded with rocks and other objects, witnesses have said.
Citizen-run checkpoints now dot Bahrain, witnesses said, with residents in both Sunni and Shiite areas fearful for their safety.
On Sunday, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa announced an agreement in principle with efforts to make the government more representative, a precondition that opposition groups had placed on any talks.
But opposition members said Monday that the presence of foreign troops made it significantly more difficult for them to negotiate with the government. “It’s like a declaration of war on the people who are engaged in a peaceful protest demanding basic rights,” said Jassim Hussain, a member of al-Wefaq, the main political opposition party. He said that tensions could rise even higher depending on Iran’s actions.
He said that Bahrain could end up being a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, where the state-run news agency carried a warning from Iran’s foreign minister against the use of violence in Bahrain.
Witnesses reported seeing 150 to 200 vehicles, including ambulances, trucks and water tankers, as well as armored personnel carriers, crossing into Bahrain over the causeway from Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Embassy in Bahrain advised U.S. citizens to stay in their residences.
birnbaumm@washpost.com

deyoungk@washpost.com

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