Bahrain declares martial law, Sunni-Shi’ite tensions flair

By Reuters Staff
March 15, 2011
bahrain

(Protesters near the Saudi Embassy in Manama, Bahrain, March 15, 2011/Hamad I Mohammed )

Bahrain declared martial law on Tuesday as it struggles to quell an uprising by the island’s Shi’ite Muslim majority that has drawn in troops from fellow Sunni-ruled neighbour Saudi Arabia. The three-month state of emergency will hand wholesale power to Bahrain’s security forces, which are dominated by the country’s Sunni Muslim elite, stoking sectarian tensions in one of the Gulf’s most politically volatile nations.

The United States, a close ally of both Bahrain and Saudi, said it was concerned about reports of growing sectarianism in the country, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and warned that violence from any side would make matters worse.

“A political solution is necessary and all sides must now work to produce a dialogue that addresses the needs of all of Bahrain’s citizens,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in Washington.

On Monday, more than 1,000 Saudi troops rolled into the kingdom in a long convoy of armoured vehicles at the request of Bahrain’s Sunni rulers, flashing victory signs as they crossed the causeway that connects the two oil producers. The United Arab Emirates said it also would send 500 police. Analysts saw the troop movement into Bahrain as a mark of concern in Saudi Arabia that concessions by the country’s monarchy could inspire the conservative Sunni-ruled kingdom’s own Shi’ite minority.

Over 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shi’ites who complain of discrimination at the hands of the Sunni royal family. Calls for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed the Sunni minority, which fears that unrest could serve non-Arab Shi’ite power Iran.

Bahrain has been gripped by its worst unrest since the 1990s after protesters took to the streets last month, inspired by uprisings that toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. Unlike those countries, where the mainly Sunni populations united against the regime, Bahrain is split along sectarian lines, raising the risk of a slide into civil conflict.

Read the full story by Lin Noueihed and Frederik Richter here.

For more background, see our recent factboxes:

Factbox: Key political risks to watch in Bahrain

Factbox: Political players in Bahrain

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