Shiite protesters in Bahrain besiege PM office

The Associated Press
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 3:14 PM

MANAMA, Bahrain -- Thousands of Shiite opposition supporters blocked the entrance to the Bahraini prime minister's office but failed to disrupt a government meeting on Sunday as the campaign for reform in the strategic Gulf nation entered its third week.

Bahrain's Shiite majority has long complained of discrimination and political persecution in the island nation, which is ruled by a Sunni dynasty. The protesters demanded the prime minister step down because of corruption and a deadly crackdown on the opposition in which seven people were killed.

Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the prime minister and the king's uncle, has been in power for 40 years.

Khalifa, who was presiding over a weekly meeting of government ministers, told the state-run Bahrain News Agency that changes are under way and the kingdom's "reform march will continue."

"The government's development policies will continue upbeat as we are determined more than ever to achieve our goal of upgrading the citizens' standards of living by providing them with the means of decent life," he said.

The Shiite opposition groups have called for a constitutional monarchy, but some of the protesters camped out in the capital's Pearl Square are demanding that the Sunni monarchy step aside altogether.

Currently, one house of Bahrain's parliament is the only elected body, but it holds limited authority since all the country's decisions - including the appointment of government ministers - rest with the king.

The 40-member institution has been in limbo since the 18 opposition legislators resigned last month to protest the government's deadly crackdown.

Bahrain holds particular importance to Washington as the host of U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, the main American military counterweight to Iran's efforts to expand its armed forces and reach into the Gulf.

The king, Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, has taken some steps to end the Shiite revolt that rattled one of the wealthiest corners of the Middle East. It was long assumed that the Gulf region's oil wealth would stave off the kind of unrest that has roiled Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya.

Bahrain, however, has little oil compared with the regional crude titans that make up the other members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, and the unrest is taking its toll on the tiny country's economy. International ratings agencies have either downgraded or warned about cuts to its ratings.

In a statement released Sunday, Bahrain's Chamber of Commerce said that "general economic conditions in the kingdom are very difficult."

The island's tourism industry was hit the hardest, the statement said, adding that the revenue fell "by about 80 percent" and the losses stemming from damage to the sector were estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Much of Bahrain's tourism comes from neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Compounding the damage was the cancellation of Formula 1's season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix. The race, staged annually in the kingdom since 2004, is a major revenue earner for Bahrain.

In a bid to allay the tensions, the king assigned Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa to lead talks with the opposition and ordered the creation of 20,000 new government jobs.

Unemployment is particularly high among Shiite youth. They complain of government jobs often being given to Sunnis from Arab countries and Pakistan who were granted Bahraini nationality to boost Sunni numbers in the Gulf nation.

Opposition leaders have accepted Salman's invitation for talks, but no date has been set for them to meet.

On Sunday, the crown prince again called for all parties to join him in dialogue, saying the crisis will have to be resolved in a "civil manner."

"All (parties) are invited to talk," Salman said. "I will not succeed without the support of the nation," he told Bahrain's state TV.

© 2011 The Associated Press