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Tension escalates in Bahrain as hard-line Shiite leader urges end to monarchy

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, demonstrators in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 21, 2011; 10:31 PM

MANAMA, BAHRAIN - A key hard-line Shiite leader called for an end to Bahrain's monarchy on Monday and another made plans to fly back to the country on Tuesday, escalating tension and threatening to open fissures in the opposition as protests stretch into a second week.

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Bahrain's crown prince called off a mid-March Formula One race, a major source of revenue and pride for the government and a sign that this tiny nation's leaders do not expect the conflict to end soon.

Many moderates encamped at the Pearl Square roundabout in Manama said on Monday that they simply want Bahrain's royal family to look more like Britain's and that the country's Shia majority deserves the same opportunities as the minority, who, like the royal family, are Sunni.

But calls for the royal family to go escalated on Monday, and it remained unclear what changes would be necessary to satisfy protesters - and even who could credibly negotiate on their behalf.

"The government goes back on its promises," said Ghadeer Kadhim, 34, who works in an oil field and was in Pearl Square. He said he is not convinced that Al Wefaq, the main Shiite political party, can speak for protesters. He said he wants equal opportunities for Shiites.

"They say we are loyal to Iran," he said. "That's not true. We are loyal to this land."

But outside Manama in poorer Shiite villages, where the modest but tidy homes receive fewer government services such as road maintenance and streetlights, calls for the king's ouster grew stronger.

In an interview at his home in Nuwaidrat, a village south of Manama, Abdulwahab Hussain said that he and the officially illegal Wafa movement that he founded would not accept any deal short of the king's departure.

"The people are now asking the regime to step down," he said. After the violence of the past week, "the regime doesn't have the legitimacy to be ruling the people."

Analysts and moderate political leaders said that those calls could further radicalize the opposition and that the situation could grow even more tense with the planned return Tuesday of the secretary general of Haq, the other large hard-line Shiite opposition movement. Hassan Mushaima was a leader in a major Shiite uprising in Bahrain in 1994 and has been living in London since last year after seeking medical treatment.

"If he is arrested, it's going to cause a lot of problems. If he is denied entry, it also could cause a lot of problems,'' said Jassim Hussain, a member of Al Wefaq, which is seeking more moderate political reforms, including transforming King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa into a constitutional monarch.

Hussain's party, which fears alienating protesters in the roundabout by entering into talks with the government, was still deliberating on Monday whether to meet with Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa.

Political observers said that the hard-liners remained marginal, but that the crown prince is harming the chances of a successful dialogue with Hussain's party by not offering to speak with them.

"If any mistake is committed now by the Wefaq people, it means that popular support . . . might shift" toward hard-liners, said Mansoor al-Jamri, editor in chief of the independent Bahraini newspaper, Al Wasat.

"The shouting now of bringing down the monarchy is only taking place because everybody is very angry at the killing of people. Many of them could be tamed down if there's a credible response from the ruling family," Jamri said.

In Manama on Monday night, streets were gridlocked with thousands of cars streaming toward Pearl Square and to a competing government-organized rally at the city's Al Fateh mosque. Village streets outside the capital city were deserted, as everyone had gone into the city to rally for one side or another.

A major opposition protest is planned for Tuesday afternoon at Pearl Square. Also planned for Tuesday is the funeral of zoo worker Abdul al-Redha, who died Monday after being shot by Bahrain's military last week.

birnbaumm@washpost.com zachariaj@washpost.com


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