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BAHRAIN: Saudi Deployment Could Widen Communal Fault Lines

David Elkins and Aprille Muscara

WASHINGTON, Mar 14 2011 (IPS) - Monday’s arrival of 1,200 Saudi and 500 Emirati security forces with a mandate from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to support King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s regime in Sunni- ruled, Shiite-majority Bahrain only stokes sectarian conflict and fuels the regional power politics between U.S.-Saudi hegemony and an increasingly influential Shiite-led Iran, analysts here argue.

“Although it is clearly too early to know the outcome of this decision, or perhaps even the purpose – to crack down on the protesters? to intimidate the opposition into joining the national dialogue? – I will hazard to predict that the impact will be negative, even on the stability they hope to preserve,” Kristin Diwan, an expert on the Arab Gulf at the American University, told IPS.

The highest-ranking member of Bahrain’s Shia religious establishment, Sheik Isa Qassim, criticised al-Khalifa’s claims that the mobilisation of GCC troops is a broader effort to ensure regional stability, rather than what Qassim considers to be Sunni entrenchment and a veiled challenge to Shia representation in the government.

“[T]he narrative of preserving order will be insufficient,” Diwan said. “Sectarian tensions are already on the rise in the Gulf since the Iraq intervention, with Shia populations throughout the Gulf facing the rising influence of anti-Shia Salafi Islamist movements. Inflaming these communal tensions hardly qualifies as a recipe for stability.”

Ultimately, a dialogue that avoids answering Bahraini protesters’ most significant demands – which include the formation of a genuinely representative government, an acceptable solution to public property and naturalisation disputes, and a concerted effort to mitigate sectarian conflicts – will only erode the already cascading “capacity and legitimacy” of the U.S. to encourage changes similar to those witnessed in Egypt and Tunisia, observers say.

In a seemingly unmistakable rejection of al-Khalifa and the U.S.’s proposals, the main opposition party, al-Wefaq, has refused to participate in a national dialogue and, along with other opposition groups, denounced the arrival of the GCC troops as barefaced “occupation” and an affront to unarmed citizens in a statement Monday.

“The presence of the foreign troops plays strongly into the hard-line opposition conviction that the al Khalifa-led government is illegitimate and cannot be trusted,” Diwan noted. “Inviting foreign troops to put down protesting citizens only reinforces this view. The work of the seven- party opposition and especially al-Wefaq to bring the bulk of the opposition to the table just got harder.”

Iranian Encroachment

The GCC mobilisation into Bahrain follows an unannounced visit by U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates to the country Saturday, in which he urged the ruling family to enact sweeping reforms – not “baby steps” – to accommodate opposition protesters.

According to media reports, Gates warned the al-Khalifa government that, although there was no evidence that Iran inflamed the demonstrations in their country, continued unrest would provide fodder for exploitation by the Iranians.

Two days later, following a request by al-Khalifa, the GCC deployed troops to the island kingdom, which some observers see as a message for both Washington and Tehran to stay out of the Gulf’s affairs and an expression of support for the besieged regime.

“Ironically, the decision by the al-Khalifa government may be opening the door for greater Iranian influence,” Diwan noted. “By inviting in external troops, the al-Khalifa just took the first step to broadening the conflict beyond the national context.”

While raising the prospect of Iranian involvement, the move could also signal an affront to U.S. influence – both symptoms of a larger trend, observers note.

“Beyond the shift in the relative distribution of power among important regional actors, the very essence of power politics in Middle East is shifting from hard military power, where America has the advantage, to soft power, where the Islamic Republic [of Iran and] its allies have the advantage,” Hillary Mann Leverett, a former U.S. State Department and National Security Council official, argued at a conference here last week.

U.S. Response

Although the U.S. did not explicitly condone nor condemn the GCC’s latest decision to sanction the deployment of its forces into the island kingdom, the Barack Obama administration has taken a cautious approach to the growing protests there so as not to undermine the opposition parties’ demands or inadvertently strengthen Iran’s ability, real or imagined, to leverage the opposition leaders of Bahrain’s roughly 70 percent Shia majority.

“We urge the government of Bahrain to pursue a peaceful and meaningful dialogue with the opposition rather than resorting to the use of force,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement Sunday. “In particular, we urge our GCC partners…to act in a way that supports dialogue instead of undermining it.”

Critics point out that the GCC mandate was designed to protect the council members from foreign invasion and not for intervening in a nation’s domestic affairs.

“This is not an invasion of a country,” Carney argued at a press conference Monday.

However, he stressed, “stability in the region will be brought about by dialogue and political reform and it is counterproductive to that goal to, in any way, repress the expression of those desires.”

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