Posted: 16 Mar 2011 06:30 PM PDT
MANAMA, — The United States said Bahrain was on the "wrong track" in trying to crush Shi'ite protests in the Sunni-ruled island, rare criticism that highlighted concern the crackdown could ignite a wider regional conflict.
Bahraini forces used tanks and helicopters yesterday to clear a protest camp set up by youths from the Shi'ite Muslim majority, which complains of discrimination by the Sunni royal family. Three police and three protesters were killed.
The unrest has brought an influx of troops to Bahrain from fellow Sunni-ruled neighbours Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, who fear the uprising that began last month could play into the hands of non-Arab Shi'ite power Iran.
It has also prompted sympathy protests from Shi'ites across the region, including in Saudi Arabia's oil-producing east.
Earlier this week, Washington said it understood why Bahrain's Sunni rulers had called in reinforcements. Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said force was not the answer.
"We find what's happening in Bahrain alarming. We think that there is no security answer to the aspirations and demands of the demonstrators," she told CBS. "They are on the wrong track."
Live bullets, petrol bombs
A medical source said dozens of people were taken to Bahrain International Hospital yesterday, hit by rubber bullets or shotgun pellets or suffering tear gas inhalation, all weapons used by riot police.
One was hit by a live bullet in the clash, in which youths hurled petrol bombs at police.
US President Barack Obama called the kings of Saudi Arabia, a strategic ally of Washington in the Middle East, and of Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and seen as a bulwark against Iranian influence, to urge "maximum" restraint.
Political analysts say the Obama administration, which gave strong support to pro-democracy protests in Egypt and Tunisia, faced a new dilemma as violence in Bahrain appeared to dash hopes for quick political talks.
US Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman went to Bahrain on Monday to push for talks to resolve the crisis. The US State Department said yesterday that he had already left.
Gregory Gause, a Gulf expert at the University of Vermont, said the events yesterday showed the intent was to quash a rebellion rather than restore order to allow political dialogue to resume as Washington had urged.
Iran condemned Bahrain's response to the protests, the worst unrest there since the 1990s, and recalled its ambassador for consultations, Iranian state TV reported.
"What has happened is bad, unjustifiable and irreparable," it quoted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying.
On Tuesday Bahrain withdrew its ambassador for consultations to protest against Tehran's criticisms.
Saudi Shi'ites held several demonstrations, including one in their main regional centre, Qatif, yesterday, demanding the release of prisoners and voicing support for Shi'ites in Bahrain, an activist and witnesses said.
"In Qatif, security shot in the air to disperse the protest," a Saudi Shi'ite activist said.
A witness said two police helicopters hovered above the demonstration. "People were demanding the withdrawal of the Peninsula force and called on Saudi Arabia to withdraw from Bahrain," the witness said, referring to Gulf states' forces.
Leading Saudi Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar voiced dismay over events in Bahrain and a member of parliament from Bahrain's largest Shi'ite opposition group denounced the assault as a war on the Shi'ite community.
"This is war of annihilation," Abdel Jalil Khalil, the head of Wefaq's 18-member parliament bloc, said. "This does not happen even in wars and this is not acceptable. I saw them fire live rounds, in front of my own eyes."
A protest called by Bahrain's youth movement, which played a leading role in the protest camp at Pearl roundabout, failed to materialise after the military banned all gatherings and imposed a curfew from 4pm to 4am across a large swathe of Manama.
A Reuters witness saw Bahraini tanks move in the direction of Budaya Street, where the protest was set to take place.
Over 60 per cent of Bahrainis are Shi'ites. Most say they want only the same treatment as Sunnis and a constitutional monarchy but calls by hardliners for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed Sunnis, who fear the unrest serves Iran.
Analysts say the intervention of Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states in Bahrain might provoke a response from Tehran, which supports Shi'ite groups in Iraq and Lebanon.
"This was a major and a dangerous decision because this issue has been internationalised now," said Wefaq MP Jasim Hussein. "There are protests in Iraq, in Iran, in Lebanon.
"There was no reason when our demands were local demands and nothing to do with Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates."
The crackdown in Bahrain has galvanised Iraq's Shi'ite community, exacerbating sectarian tension that led to years of war in Iraq. Iraq's Shi'ite prime minister criticised the assault and Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for protests.
In Lebanon, supporters of Shi'ite group Hezbollah also came out in solidarity with their fellow Shia.
The United Nations and Britain have echoed the US call for restraint and the Group of Eight powers expressed concern.
"When the Gulf states now send military units to the small . . . island state, there is a very critical risk that the situation will . . . be seen as part of a broader confrontation," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on his blog.
"While there was most likely initially no Iranian interference, the opportunities for Iran to take advantage of the situation now undeniably grow."
Gulf expert Gause said the latest developments had given Washington a serious dilemma. "This is a really sticky situation, there is no question about that." — Reuters
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Posted: 16 Mar 2011 05:50 PM PDT
TRIPOLI, — The battle for control of rebel capital Benghazi looked just hours away today after the Libyan army told people to leave opposition-held locations and arms storage areas, but residents said the city was quiet.
Benghazi residents poured scorn on the army announcement, one of several recent reports on Libyan television that have not been borne out. It said on Tuesday that pro-Gaddafi masses were rallying in the city, which residents said never happened.
"This is psychological warfare," Benghazi resident Faiza Ali told Reuters by telephone.
Jibril al-Huweidi, a doctor at al-Jalaa Hospital in Benghazi, said ambulances were shuttling between Benghazi and Ajdabiya, a city further west where loyalist and opposition forces clashed.
"They could not have made it repeatedly back and forth tonight if the evil forces were closing in on Benghazi" he said.
A text on the screen of Al-Libya television addressed people in the eastern city, saying the army was coming "to support you and to cleanse your city from armed gangs".
"It urges you to keep out by midnight of areas where the armed men and weapon storage areas are located," it said.
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi said on Lebanon's LBC TV he did not expect a battle in Benghazi, seat of the insurgents' provisional national council, because Libyan people have been helping get rid of "al Qaeda" elements there.
One of Gaddafi's sons, Saif al-Islam, had told Euronews TV yesterday morning that Libya's second-largest city would fall whether or not the international community agreed to impose a no-fly zone. "Everything will be over in 48 hours," he said.
No no-fly zone
Diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed remain mired. Three weeks after a no-fly zone over Libya was first mooted, nothing has been agreed.
A UN Security Council draft resolution on a no-fly zone to protect civilians was circulated on Tuesday after a meeting of Group of Eight foreign ministers in Paris this week failed to get the agreement France was hoping for.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate ceasefire by all parties and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States hoped for a UN Security Council vote aimed at ending Libya's conflict "no later than Thursday".
Saying Gaddafi seemed determined to kill as many as Libyans as possible in his violent effort to quell a month-long uprising, she said "many different actions" were being considered, not just a no-fly zone.
The United States, Russia, China, Germany, India and other council members are either undecided or voiced doubts about the proposal for a no-fly zone being proposed by Britain and France.
In Geneva, former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner lambasted the international community for its delay in imposing a no-fly zone, saying it was too late to save lives in the crackdown on an increasingly feeble-looking uprising, inspired by pro-democracy revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.
"We've known since three weeks that the poor civil society, the poor people, are dying. And we are doing nothing," he told World Radio Switzerland.
Italy, a potential base for a no-fly zone proposed by Britain and France, ruled out military intervention in the oil-exporting north African country.
A matter of hours
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), among the only aid agencies deployed in Benghazi, said yesterday that it had withdrawn its aid workers from the town.
But Libyan rebels fought back against Gaddafi's troops around the eastern town of Ajdabiyah, 145km south of Benghazi on the Gulf of Sirte and a crucial gateway to Benghazi, hampering their push towards that city.
One rebel officer said earlier yesterday that the town had been lost and the fighters who remained had handed over their weapons. But some apparently refused to surrender or flee.
By evening, residents said the rebels held the centre of town while loyalist forces were mostly on its eastern outskirts.
In New York, anti-Gaddafi Libyan diplomat, Ibrahim Dabbashi, told reporters that the international community had 10 hours to act against Gaddafi's troops.
"We think that . . . in the coming hours, we will see a real genocide in Ajdabiyah if the international community does not move quickly and prevent him from attacking it with a large force," he said.
A rebel spokesman in Benghazi, Mustafa Gheriani, told Reuters by telephone that they were holding Ajdabiyah.
"But the fighting is fierce," he said. "His supply lines are stretched so he can't push on from Ajdabiyah. We've got some surprises in store. We're going to fight on and we're going to win." — Reuters
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