Bahrainis are this morning preparing to bury an activist killed in a crackdown on mainly Shi’ite Muslim protesters that has angered Iran and raised tensions in the world’s largest oil-exporting region.
It was not clear if large numbers of people would turn out for the funeral of the protester killed on Wednesday, as they had for some of the seven killed in last month’s crackdown, and whether police and troops would try to disperse a procession. Bahrain has arrested seven opposition leaders and driven pro-democracy demonstrations from the streets after weeks of protests that drew in troops from its fellow Sunni-ruled neighbours and prompted the king to declare martial law.
Three protesters died in the security sweep. Three policemen also were killed, hit by demonstrators in fast-moving cars. The crackdown has drawn sympathy protests from Shi’ites across the region, including top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, which has sent more than 1,000 troops into its tiny island neighbour.
Shi’ite Muslim power Iran, which supports Shi’ite groups in Iraq and Lebanon, has complained to the United Nations and asked other neighbours to join it in urging Saudi Arabia to withdraw. Its call was echoed on Thursday by Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of Bahrain’s largest Shi’ite Muslim party Wefaq.
“How could one accept a government to invite foreign military forces to suppress its own citizens?” Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, also addressed to the Arab League. In a sign that tensions were rising, Bahrain said: “Iran’s move does not serve security and stability in the Gulf region.”
Over 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shi’ites. Most are campaigning for a constitutional monarchy, but calls by hardliners for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed Sunnis, who fear the unrest serves Iran, located across a short stretch of Gulf waters from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Bahraini state TV called the detainees leaders of “civil strife” and said they had been communicating with foreign countries and inciting murder and destruction of properties.
It did not name the countries. Analysts say the intervention of Saudi Arabia, which is worried that Bahraini protests could incite its own Shi’ite minority, risks a growing standoff with Iran. Oil prices rose on Thursday on growing geopolitical tension in the Middle East and North Africa. Capital flight is starting to put pressure on Bahrain’s currency and threaten its position as a Gulf financial centre.
Most Western nations have urged their citizens to leave.
The ferocity of the crackdown, which has seen troops and police fan out across Bahrain, impose a curfew and ban all public gatherings and marches, has stunned Bahrain’s Shi’ites. On Thursday, opposition activists told a news conference they would press on with peaceful resistance, holding a sit-in inside the mosques after Friday prayers, standing outside their homes at certain hours and flying the flag from their rooftops.
Wefaq supporters also will call Allahu Akbar, or God is Great, from their rooftops at night in peaceful resistance. It was not clear what else they could do without provoking a confrontation and some ordinary Shi’ites said they were waiting for guidance from Sheikh Issa Qassim, the country’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, who is due to give a sermon on Friday.
“We are waiting to see what Sheikh Issa Qassim says,” Hussein al-Ali, from a Shi’ite Muslim area near Sar, said. Among those detained overnight were Haq leader Hassan Mushaima and Wafa leader Abdel Wahhab Hussein, who had led calls for the overthrow of the royal family, Wefaq officials said.
More moderate Wefaq had limited its demands to political and constitutional reform. Also arrested was Ibrahim Sharif, head of the secular Left party Waad that had the same demands as Wefaq.
In Geneva, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged Bahrain on Thursday to rein in its security forces, citing allegations that they had killed, beaten and carried out arbitrary arrests of protesters and attacked medical workers.
On Thursday, more than a dozen casualties who had been taken to Bahrain International Hospital during the crackdown were gone. Nurses said they had mostly been suffering from teargas inhalation and cuts and bruises. The wards were empty.
Tanks were still guarding the entrances to Salmaniya hospital on Thursday and slowing entry down with searches, after raiding the compound during the crackdown to clear tents that had been set up in the car park by opposition activists.