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New clashes erupt in Bahrain after marchers rally in support of king
Critics from the opposition Labor Party accused the British government of being "on the wrong side of history," underscoring how governments on both sides of the Atlantic are coming under heavy scrutiny for their close alliances with repressive Arab governments. "It is astounding that the government is still insisting it has a responsible arms export policy while, in the same breath, admitting that it was happy to supply authoritarian regimes with the means to crush dissent," said Sarah Waldron, campaigns coordinator at CAAT.
Other leaders among the Persian Gulf countries rallied to the defense of Bahrain's monarchy, denouncing any outside influence in the country's affairs and praising the quick action of Bahraini leaders to counter the protests. Though the violence was "regrettable," said Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, the protests were pushing the country toward a "sectarian abyss."
Most residents of the gulf states are Sunni, and there are enduring concerns among the region's leaders about Iran's influence over Shiite communities, particularly in Bahrain and neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged the government to use restraint in response to the protests, telling the Bahraini foreign minister in a phone call of "deep concerns" over the police-led violence.
Bahrain is the first of the oil-rich gulf monarchies to be significantly rattled by the protests that have broken out elsewhere, forcing the United States and other countries to again balance strategic interests with the democratic demands of the population. Along with its proximity to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain hosts a major U.S. naval base that serves as a staging ground for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bahrain's roughly 12,000-member military is made up predominantly of Bahraini nationals. But the Bahraini security forces, including riot police, are filled with Pakistanis and other foreign-born troops and officers "who are happy to do whatever they have to do to keep law and order," said Bruce Riedel, a former Middle East CIA analyst now with the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The situation in Bahrain is further complicated by a palace feud between the country's prime minister and his nephew, the country's king.
The police involved in Thursday's violence are answerable to the prime minister, and the force's reliance on Pakistanis and other foreign recruits has long been a source of tension in the country.
What remains unknown is whether King Hamad agreed to the action - he had apologized publicly for earlier police violence - and whether the crackdown would continue.
"There's always been a question - and it's completely opaque - as to just how much the king controls . . . and just how much the prime minister controls,'' said Gregory Gause, a Persian Gulf specialist in the political science department at the University of Vermont. "You have the king making certain signals the one day and then the next day, the troops move in.''
An architect of past efforts to suppress Bahrain's Shiite majority and a known skeptic of democratic reforms, the prime minister has been in office for four decades. Some of his powers were stripped after his nephew took the throne in 1999, but he remains an influential figure. While Hamad is believed to want to transfer even more authority to his son, the U.S.-educated crown prince, observers here say family politics make it impossible for the king to replace his uncle.
Staff writers Greg Jaffe, William Branigin and Joby Warrick in Washington and Anthony Faiola in London contributed to this report.