Unrest in US ally Bahrain takes a more violent turn

Shiite protesters in Bahrain have begun using Molotov cocktails, while Sunni hard-liners also are urging more extreme measures. 

Hasan Jamali/AP
Tear gas fired by riot police lands near antigovernment demonstrators Thursday, Feb. 16, in Musalla, Bahrain, on the edge of the capital of Manama. Security remained tight in Manama and Shiite villages, with clashes between antigovernment protesters and riot police in several areas.

After a year of civil unrest in Bahrain that has left scores of people dead and pitted neighbor against neighbor, street protests this week in Manama underscored fears that the country's internal divide is entering a more violent phase that could make reconciliation all but impossible in the foreseeable future.

Many analysts like Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the London School of Economics, say there are serious concerns that the situation could become a frozen conflict, with all sides withdrawing deeper into hard-line positions.

“There’s a danger that the polarization of Bahraini society has torn out the middle ground and it’s also destroying social fabric,” says Mr. Coates-Ulrichsen.

Slow political reform and continual raids on opposition communities by security forces have already led some antigovernment activists to abandon peaceful demonstrations for more violent, underground action.

Dozens of police officers were injured and several hospitalized in the run-up to the Feb. 14 anniversary of Bahrain's uprising, after angry youths pelted them with stones, metal projectiles, and Molotov cocktails.

Many frustrated young people have vowed to continue carrying out similar attacks.

“Our sisters are getting raped, our brothers are getting killed, and our fathers are in prison getting humiliated and beaten to death," said a 15-year-old Bahraini who admitted to resorting to violence, but wished to remain anonymous for security reasons. “Riot police are shooting us in our homes with teargas while we are sleeping. We don’t have an army, we don’t have guns to defend ourselves, but we have Molotov [cocktails].”

There is also a growing push from some Sunni leaders to use more extreme measures. After the beginning of the crisis last year, a political Sunni coalition formed to counter Shiite rhetoric. Some hard-liners in the group have since called on the government to use additional force to control opposition protesters, whom they identify as “traitors.”

Indirect talks last week

Bahrain’s major opposition groups have condemned the spike in violence. But Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of the main Shiite party al-Wefaq, says the shift in sentiment is hardly surprising.

“This is because the government didn’t listen to its people and used a lot of force,” he says. “The cocktails were used just in the last month. All the 11 months before there was nothing.”

Shiite Muslims, who represent about 70 percent of the population, make up the majority of opposition supporters in Bahrain. They say they are marginalized by their Sunni leaders and have been calling for more rights and a more representative government.

Last week, an al-Wefaq representative met with the ruling family to present a list of demands from a coalition of five opposition parties. The list, known as the Manama Document and first introduced last fall, calls for an elected parliament that has actual power, equal voting districts that are not skewed to favor government supporters, independent judges, and an end to discrimination against the Shiite majority.

Concern about police abuse of women

Shiites also complain of weekly attacks on their villages by security forces, who they say use teargas indiscriminately.

Violent retaliation against the police began to intensify last month after Shiite cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim told his supporters to “crush” any officer who was seen abusing women.

The call came after several females complained of being sexually harassed by authorities.

“If anything happened to our women in a bad way, it means that our dignity is broken and we will be in shame if we did nothing to prevent such attitude again,” said a young Shiite who admitted to throwing stones at police and asked to be identified only as Abu Haider. “It breaches our standards of Islam, so citizens are using these tactics in villages to stop police from storming in.”

Former Miami police chief tapped to reform Bahraini police

However, authorities say women, too, are becoming increasingly violent.

“We have seen women taking active part in facilitating or assisting young men with these Molotov cocktails and those women should not be surprised if they are going to be arrested by the police,” says John Timoney, the former police chief of Philadelphia and Miami who was recently hired by the Bahraini government to help reform the nation’s police force.

Mr. Timoney’s appointment followed the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report in November, which detailed “the use of excessive force by police officers,” as well as “a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture.” His appointment was criticized by some in the US, who cited his heavy reliance on riot police to contain public demonstrations in Miami.

Timoney says that while there may have been isolated cases of abuse carried out by officers since he arrived in Bahrain, it is not condoned by the government as some opposition supporters claim.

“There is no systemic policy for dealing with women in general, that’s absolutely untrue. All that is, is a pure excuse for these young rioters to carry out their criminal behavior,” he says in a Monitor interview.

Timoney also defends the right of security forces to use teargas to protect themselves from potentially deadly Molotov cocktails and says the government has shown it is sincerely committed to reform.

Top US diplomat praises progress

Both the government and the opposition say dialogue is the only way to resolve the country’s problems, yet opposition leaders continually say conditions for talks are unsuitable. They pulled out of formal discussions last year after receiving “unfair representation” in them.

Western powers have been reluctant to condemn Bahrain for its handling of its unrest, in which rights groups say more than 60 people have died. The kingdom is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which is seen as vital to counter Iranian influence in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

During a visit to the country last week, US Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner – whose portfolio includes for democracy, human rights, and labor – underscored America’s strong relationship with Bahrain and praised its progress on reforms suggested by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) – including legislation on torture and the rebuilding of religious sites affected by the unrest. Mr. Posner also called for a more diverse police force and greater transparency regarding a wave of Shiite employees who were summarily fired amid sectarian tensions last year.

"The United States views the BICI report and its followup as a bold measure by the government to begin to rebuild confidence with the Bahraini people," he said. "Implementing these recommendations is not an easy task, and we commend the efforts undertaken so far to realize the goals of the BICI process. Ultimately, the goal of the BICI and implementation of its recommendations is to create a path toward genuine political dialogue and national reconciliation."

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