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Thu 19 May 2011 05:17 PM

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Bahrain foreign minister suggests Gulf force expansion

Concerns over Iran may push GCC to reshape its Gulf military presence, Sheikh Khalid says

Bahrain foreign minister suggests Gulf force expansion
Bahrains foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa (Getty Images)

Bahrain's foreign minister floated the idea of expanding
military bases within a bloc of Gulf Arab allies that helped Manama
quash protests it blamed rival power Iran for stoking.

Sheikh Khalid Al Khalifa said in an interview with PBS
Newshour on Wednesday evening that concerns over Iranian interference may push
the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to reshape its Gulf military presence.

The opposition had hoped that the GCC would pull out of
Bahrain when emergency law, imposed in March, ends on June 1.

"Any threat that any country would face would
definitely, no doubt, affect its neighbours. Saudi Arabia is only 28 kilometres
(17 miles) away from here. We are looking at the GCC force to be expanded, to
have multi-bases everywhere in the GCC," he told the US television
programme.

"So whether they leave or stay or be restructured,
that's what is to be discussed in the future," he said.

Bahrain's rulers imposed emergency law and called in troops
from neighbouring Gulf countries in March to quash protests. Some hardliners
had called for a republic.

Iran, just across Gulf waters, has issued several statements
condemning the GCC troops' presence in the country. Bahraini Shi'ites insist
they have no ties to Iran.

Sheikh Khalid told Newshour that Bahrain was getting a
"daily barrage" of statements from Iran that worried the tiny Gulf
island country.

"I can tell you that they have people sympathising with
them here," he said, adding that not all Shi'ites were siding with Iran.
"There's definitely an Iranian interest group in Bahrain."

A military court on Thursday sentenced nine people to 20
years in prison after they were convicted of kidnapping a policeman. One of the
men sentenced was a prominent religious cleric and political activist.

International and local rights groups have criticised the
government for the severity of its security sweep, in which masked troops
manned checkpoints throughout the city and hundreds of people, mostly Shi'ite
activists or politicians, were arrested. At least four detainees have died in
custody.

Dozens of people have also disappeared, and hundreds of
mostly Shi'ite workers have been fired from their jobs.

Government supporters have held two protests in the past
week demanding security assurances after a man at a small protest at a check
point on Tuesday drove his car into a group of policemen, wounding nine of
them.

Some 1,000 protesters in a Sunni neighbourhood of Manama
rallied on Wednesday evening but several religious clerics urged them to return
home.

Some of the demonstrators vowed to gather again after
prayers on Friday, a day which has taken on great significance since
pro-democracy protests began sweeping the Arab region. Protesters have used
Friday prayers to mobilise larger crowds.

In his Newshour interview, Sheikh Khalid said that a
security presence would still be high after emergency law is lifted despite the
removal of tanks and military from the streets.

"There's no doubt that the police will be on their toes
24/7, because the time just after June 1... it's a very delicate period we want
to ensure nothing goes wrong and we don't slide back to chaos."

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