Bahrain ‘arena’ for Gulf forces and wider fears

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — A Saudi-led military force crossed into Bahrain Monday to prop up the monarchy against widening demonstrations that have sent waves of fear through Gulf states over the potential for enemy Iran to take new footholds on their doorsteps.

The Bahrain conflict is sectarian as much as pro-democracy, as the strategic Gulf island nation’s majority Shiite Muslims see an opportunity to rid themselves of two centuries of rule by a Sunni monarchy.

But Gulf Sunni leaders worry that might give Shiite Iran a stepping stone to its arch-rival Saudi Arabia, connected to Bahrain by a wide causeway.

Instead, the Saudis and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council sent forces the other way, deploying about 1,000 troops by land and air and cementing the entire six-nation alliance to the fate of Bahrain’s rulers, key U.S. allies as hosts of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

The first cross-border offensive against one of the rebellions sweeping the Mideast was not greeted with celebrations.

Shortly after word of the foreign military reinforcements began to spread through the island nation, protesters blocked roads in the capital Manama. Thousands of others swarmed into Pearl Square, the symbolic center of the monthlong revolt.

Shiite-led opposition groups denounced the Gulf military task force as an occupation that pushes the tiny island kingdom dangerously close to a state of “undeclared war.”

“No to occupation,” demonstrators cried in Manama’s packed Pearl Square.

Gulf leaders see it completely differently.

The Sunni kings and sheiks fear any cracks in Bahrain’s ruling system could threaten their own foundations. Protests are already flaring in Oman, Kuwait and even tightly ruled Saudi Arabia. The leaders also perceive political gains by Bahrain’s Shiites as potential avenues of entry for Iran’s Shiite regime — even though there are no apparent links between Tehran and Bahrain’s Shiite opposition.

“The Gulf leaders have tried to legitimize this. They portray it not as intervention in an internal Bahrain dispute, but rather as an action against an external threat,” said Sami Alfaraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. “Bahrain is the arena for the worries about Iran.”

It’s not clear when the tipping point arrived for Bahrain to seek outside help. The rulers have faced a month of nonstop unrest that has left seven people dead and the country drifting toward open sectarian conflict.

There have been scenes of defiance and disobedience so unsettling that pro-government parliament members appealed to Bahrain’s king to impose martial law. On Sunday, protesters paralyzed Bahrain’s finance district with roadblocks and then stood their ground — and in some cases pressed forward — against riot police firing tear gas in Pearl Square.

A statement on the state-run Bahrain News Agency said troops from the GCC’s Peninsula Shield Force have been deployed “in line with the principle of common destiny bonding” the bloc, made up of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The statement said the reason for the mission was “the common responsibility of the GCC countries in maintaining security and stability. “

The Shield Force was created in the 1980s. Military units under a GCC command have been sent to Kuwait, including during the 1991 U.S.-led campaign to oust Saddam Hussein’s force and in 2003 before the invasion of Iraq. The current action marks a significant shift to help a government quell internal unrest.

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