Bahrain’s Shiite leader condemns continued arrests, reversing 10 years of sectarian progress

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Shiites say Bahrain crackdown sets back relations

MANAMA, Bahrain — Bahrain’s top Shiite politician said last week’s crackdown on Shiite protesters has destroyed a decade of stable sectarian relations as the country heads into parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has experienced daily clashes for the past week between Shiite protesters and Sunni-dominated security forces because of a series of arrests of leading activists.

Shiites make up as much as 70 percent of Bahrain’s population, according to a 2008 State Department report. But the country is governed by a small Sunni elite headed by the ruling Khalifa family.

“The way the ongoing security campaign had been handled and the rights violations that accompanied it has in one week destroyed 10 years of progress in this country,” said Sheik Ali Salman, the head of Wefaq society, the largest Shiite bloc in parliament at a press conference Saturday.

He also accused the government of tarnishing Bahrain’s human rights record and warned violence would not solve the continued problems between the two groups.

Shiites have complained of discrimination for decades. They say Sunnis get the best government jobs and housing, while Shiites are barred from high posts in the military and security forces and suffer from higher rates of poverty.

A government statement issued Saturday blamed internationally funded insurgents for trying to disrupt national security. It also said the suspects were arrested according to Bahraini anti-terrorism laws.

Lawyer Mohammed al-Tajir estimates that over the past week 160 people have been arrested, including 10 high level leaders.

“The number is on the rise from last week and differs from one lawyer to another,” he said. “We are having trouble meeting with the detainees and finding out where they are kept.”

Bahrain is tiny with only 530,000 citizens in an island nation smaller than New York City and lies on a fault line in the standoff dividing the Middle East, where Sunni Arab governments fear any sign of the growing power of Shiite Iran.

Bahrain’s Shiites say they have nothing to do with Iran and are only seeking equality in a country where they are the majority. But their demands are seen by many Sunnis as a stalking horse for Tehran’s regional ambitions.

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