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Bahrain backs off plan to ban opposition after US criticism

The abrupt U-turn suggests that the US, which has been largely silent over the past month, still wields influence over the tiny kingdom despite its acquiescence to Saudi interests there.

By Correspondent / April 15, 2011

Iranian demonstrators chant slogans in a protest against Saudi and Bahraini leaders condemning crackdown on Bahraini opposition, as one of them holds up a mocking poster of Statue of Liberty, in front of the Bahraini Embassy in Tehran, Iran, on Friday, April 15.

Vahid Salemi/AP

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Bahrain has backed off its move to dissolve the kingdom’s strongest political opposition bloc after the US criticized the decision made by its tiny ally – home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and other military installations critical to American operations in the Persian Gulf.

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The Ministry of Justice and Islamic affairs announced yesterday it was seeking court approval to ban Al Wefaq, a Shiite political bloc that is the government’s strongest opposition, and the smaller Islamic Action Association. It accused both groups of violating laws and harming “social peace and national unity.”

But after the US State Department spokesman criticized the move, Bahrain’s official news agency removed the original statement and said that the ministry would wait for the outcome of current investigations before deciding to take action against the political societies. The abrupt U-turn suggests that the US, which has been largely silent over the past month, still wields influence over the tiny kingdom despite its acquiescence to Saudi interests there.

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Al Wefaq member Sayed Hadi AlMosawi, contacted in Manama by phone, says he believes the reversal was a direct result of US criticism.

“I think that [Bahraini officials] got the message clearly and that’s why they withdrew it,” he says. “Still we feel there is an intention to do something, but we don’t know what. The situation is not clear for us.”

State department spokesman endorsed a reversal

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday that the US was “concerned” about the decision and “we would welcome them reversing this particular action.”

“These were legitimate political societies that were recognized by the government of Bahrain, especially the mainstream Shia opposition group, Al Wefaq,” he said in a briefing in Washington. “We call on the government of Bahrain to support freedom of association and expression and to foster an environment that encourages political pluralism and participation.” Political parties are outlawed in Bahrain, and they are known instead as political societies.

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