Oman clashes widen protest rumblings in Gulf

The Associated Press
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 5:09 PM

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Protests against the tight grip of Gulf rulers widened Sunday as riot police in Oman battled pro-democracy demonstrators in a deadly clash that sharply raised tensions in the region.

Tiny Bahrain is already in turmoil and giant Saudi Arabia is seeking to hold back calls for reforms.

The Gulf protests have shaken the once-comfortable command of various monarchs and sheiks. An ever deeper and sustained political revolt would thrust the Arab world's uprising into the heart of the region's oil riches and Washington's front-line allies against Iran.

The U.S. has long counted on the Gulf's rulers as reliable partners - particularly their common ground over concerns about Iran's efforts to expand its influence. No ruling system has given way, but cracks are evident.

Protesters are calling for the ouster of the Bahrain monarchy that hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Marchers on Sunday streamed through the diplomatic zone in Bahrain's capital Manama, chanting slogans against the king.

Opposition forces, meanwhile, are showing resolve to challenge the absolute rule of dynasties in Saudi Arabia and now Oman, which shares with Iran control of the strategic oil tanker route through the Strait of Hormouz and is a mediator between Iran and the West.

In the Omani town of Sohar, security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters demanding a greater voice in the country's affairs. At least one person was killed, police officials said, but other reports cited Omani media sources saying at least two died.

Oman's state-run news agency said protesters set cars and houses on fire, burned down a police station and set the governor's residence ablaze in the seaside town, about 120 miles (200 kilometers) northwest of the capital of Muscat.

It marked the first serious confrontation against protesters seeking to open up the ruling system of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, whose nation straddles the southeast corner of the Arabian peninsula and is co-guardian of the Strait of Hormuz. About 40 percent of the world's oil tanker traffic passes through the waterway at the mouth of the Gulf.

The sultan has already take bold steps to try to quell the unrest. On Saturday, he replaced six Cabinet members and last week boosted the minimum wage by more than 40 percent.

"We want new faces in the government and we have a long list of social reforms," said Habiba al-Hanay, a 45-year-old civil servant.

Omanis are not seeking to oust the country's ruler, al-Hanay said. "We just hope he will hear us and make changes," she added, noting that unemployment is high and education is poor in the country, which only has one university.

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