Iran condemns Bahraini assault

Wed, Mar 16, 2011, 00:00

Bahraini forces used tanks and helicopters to drive protesters from the streets today, clearing a camp that had become a symbol of the Shia Muslim uprising and drawing rare criticism from their US allies.

Three police and three protesters were killed in the violence that has transformed a crisis between the island's majority Shias and minority Sunnis into a regional standoff between Sunni Gulf Arab states and non-Arab Shia power Iran.

US president Barack Obama called the kings of Saudi Arabia, a strategic ally of Washington in the Middle East, and of Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, to urge restraint. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Bahrain and Gulf allies who sent in troops to back the Sunni royals were on the wrong track.

"We find what's happening in Bahrain alarming. We think that there is no security answer to the aspirations and demands of the demonstrators," she told CBS. "They are on the wrong track."

The assault began less than 24 hours after Bahrain declared martial law to quell sectarian unrest that has sucked in troops from fellow Sunni-ruled neighbours Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates .

A member of parliament from the largest Shia opposition group denounced the assault as a war on the Shia community.

"This is war of annihilation. This does not happen even in wars and this is not acceptable," Abdel Jalil Khalil, the head of Wefaq's 18-member parliament bloc, said. "I saw them fire live rounds, in front of my own eyes."

A protest called by the youth movement, which played a leading role in the protest camp at Pearl roundabout, failed to materialise after the military banned all gatherings and imposed a curfew from 4pm to 4am across a large swathe of Manama.

Over 60 per cent of Bahrainis are Shias, and they complain of discrimination at the hands of the Sunni royal family, the al-Khalifa. Most Shias want a constitutional monarchy, but calls by some hardliners for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed the Sunni minority, which fears the unrest serves Iran.

Gulf Arab ruling families are Sunni and analysts say the intervention of their forces in Bahrain might provoke a response from Iran, which supports Shia groups in Iraq and Lebanon.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today condemned Bahrain's crackdown. "Today, we witness the degree of pressure imposed on the majority of people in Bahrain," he said according to state TV. What has happened is bad, unjustifiable and irreparable."

Helicopters flew overhead, and riot police fired teargas as they advanced from about 7am on the Pearl roundabout, focal point of weeks of protests. Youths hurled petrol bombs at police near the roundabout and scattered as new rounds of teargas hit.

The area was cleared within about two hours but protesters knocked down two police in their cars as they fled.

Riot police blocked access to Salmaniya hospital, where many civilian casualties had previously been treated, and cleared several tents set up by opposition activists in the car park.

Reuters