Bahrain vows 'crackdown on lawbreakers'

By Michael Birnbaum
Wednesday, March 16, 2011

MANAMA, Bahrain - Bahrain's king declared a state of emergency Tuesday, imposing a curfew, banning rallies and handing broad powers to a military bolstered by the fresh arrival of dozens of tanks sent by other Gulf monarchies.

The armor added to an intervention that began on Monday with the dispatch of more than 1,000 Saudi troops, reinforcing a new hard line adopted by Bahrain's ruling family in a bid to quash a month-long protest that continued on Tuesday, with human rights advocates reporting hundreds to have been injured.

The Bahrain Defense Force warned ominously that "certain locations will be evacuated" under the state of emergency, according to the state news agency, which called it a "crackdown on lawbreakers." Protesters have occupied Pearl Square in central Manama for more than three weeks, and their new grip on the downtown area has expanded in recent days to include checkpoints and barriers that have brought the country's economy to a near halt.

The announcement of a "State of National Safety'' was broadcast on state television and was described by Bahraini officials as a step below martial law. The officials said it would last three months and would target what the Information Ministry called "increased lawlessness jeopardizing the lives of citizens."

Saudi Arabia, which like Bahrain has a Sunni monarchy, has feared that Bahrain's mostly Shiite protesters could fall in thrall to Iran were they to gain power, and it has vowed to do anything it takes to support Bahrain's al-Khalifa royal family.

There were signs of fresh tension between Iran and its neighbors over the Saudi intervention. A spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry on Tuesday said that "the presence of foreign forces and interference in Bahrain's internal affairs is unacceptable and will further complicate the issue." Bahrain recalled its ambassador from Tehran.

At least two people died in clashes around Bahrain on Tuesday, according to the state-run television station and human rights advocates. There were conflicting accounts about the nationalities of the victims.

On Tuesday night, Pearl Square was less crowded than it has been in recent days, witnesses said, with many protesters gone home to their villages to defend them against government supporters armed with sticks and swords. Other parts of the downtown area were eerily deserted when on an ordinary evening they would be bustling. Police officers armed with shotguns stopped cars at checkpoints around the area.

Witnesses watching the causeway between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain said that about 100 army trucks and dozens of tanks on transport vehicles arrived on Tuesday, along with more armored personnel carriers, supplementing the more than 1,000 Saudi troops and 500 police officers from the United Arab Emirates who arrived Monday. Bahrain's own defense force includes only about 9,000 personnel. It was not immediately clear which Gulf countries the new military forces had come from.

Protesters vowed to hold their ground, and a member of the main opposition political group said that chances of negotiation were slim so long as foreign troops were in the country.

"There's no talk about dialogue," said Jassim Hussein, a member of Al-Wefaq, which is the largest opposition political society. "The topics have changed in the last 24 hours."

Still,Husein said, violence would not solve the issues and "eventually there's no choice" but for negotiations.

He said that he was not aware of any contact between the opposition groups and the government since the troops arrived Monday.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she had told Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in a conversation on Tuesday that all sides "must take steps now to negotiate toward a political resolution." While the United States recognized that Bahrain has "the right to ask for assistance," Clinton said during a news conference in Cairo, "security challenges cannot be a substitute for a political resolution."

"I'm not going to characterize their actions," Clinton said of the Saudis. But "as long they are moving in" to Bahrain, she said, "they, along with everyone else, need to be promoting the dialogue between the two parties."

The worst clashes of the day took place in Sitra, a mostly-Shiite island south of Manama, where protesters fought with riot police and government supporters, witnesses said.

"Riot police started to attack Sitra, and civilians too" were on the attack, said Mohammed Al-Maskati, the president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights. "The police were using rubber bullets, teargas, sound bombs and shotguns," although, he said, he was not certain if any live ammunition was used.

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