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Bahrain's Shiite protesters appeal for US backing

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The Associated Press
Monday, March 7, 2011; 1:52 PM

MANAMA, Bahrain -- Hundreds of members of Bahrain's Shiite Muslim majority protested outside the U.S. Embassy on Monday to appeal for Washington to back their campaign for greater political freedom.

The embassy said staff met with the protesters and reiterated the Obama administration's commitment to the "partnership with the government and the people of Bahrain."

The statement also urged "all parties to work immediately to begin a dialogue," but cautioned talks will only be successful if they will "lead to concrete actions and reforms," the embassy said.

The opposition supporters claimed during Monday's protest that Washington is showing less support for the revolt in Bahrain than it did for the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that ousted the countries' presidents.

The protesters are staging daily marches in an effort to end what they say are the Sunni royal family's discriminatory policies and political persecution of Shiites.

They have called for a constitutional monarchy and elected government in Bahrain - which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, the main American military counterweight to Iranian forces.

The Sunni minority has ruled Bahrain's Shiite majority for 200 years and some of the protesters camped out in the capital's Pearl Square are demanding that the Al Khalifa royal family step down altogether.

Washington has praised the king's efforts to defuse tensions and end a nearly three-week showdown that has included a deadly crackdown. The U.S. also urged the Sunni dynasty to answer the aspirations of the Bahraini people.

The protesters were holding up signs that said in English, "Stop supporting dictators," and delivered a letter to the U.S. Embassy condemning Washington's "negative attitude regarding human rights violations in Bahrain."

Bahrain's Shiites have long demanded rights and opportunities equal to those of the kingdom's Sunni citizens and Sunnis from Arab countries and Pakistan who have been granted Bahraini nationality in an effort to boost the minority's numbers.

Unemployment in the oil-rich state is particularly high among the Shiite youth who are driving the revolt, now in its third week.

Tensions remain high in the island kingdom after a clash last week between Shiites and Sunnis that injured at least a dozen people.

On Monday, all it took was a minor traffic accident in the capital, Manama, to spark a war of words between opposition and government supporters on social networking websites. Protesters accused a driver of intentionally brushing her car against a group of demonstrators at slow speed and speculated she was a government supporter. One protester was slightly injured.

The ruling family has taken some steps to appease the protesters. The king assigned Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa to lead talks with the political opposition and ordered the creation of 20,000 new government jobs.

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

In an interview with Bahrain's state TV, Salman said the job creation plan will help bring down the unemployment in the kingdom. He denied the new positions were offered to the opposition supporters as an incentive to start talking.

"These (programs) are de facto developments," Salman said late Sunday. "They happened and will continue to happen as part of the government's programs providing services to the community."

"However, I urge that such initiatives should not be linked to the dialogue," he added.



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© 2011 The Associated Press

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