Thousands of opposition
activists marched on Friday towards Bahrain's royal court, a
protest that looked set to spark fighting on a Gulf island where
the majority is Shi'ite Muslim but the ruling family is Sunni.
Carrying Bahraini flags and flowers, several thousand mainly
Shi'ite protesters began walking from the Aly area to Riffa, a
district where Sunnis and members of the Sunni royal family
live. Near a clocktower in Riffa, about a thousand residents
armed with clubs gathered to block the protesters' advance.
"The royal family has lots of palaces and houses here. We're
peaceful. We want to go to their house and ask for our rights,"
said Ahmed Jaafar, as he set off from Aly. "Power should not be
with one family, it should be with the people."
Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, has been
gripped by the worst unrest since the 1990s when protesters took
to the streets last month, inspired by uprisings that unseated
entrenched autocratic rulers in Egypt and Tunisia.
Seven people have been killed in clashes with security
forces and thousands of the February 14 youth movement still occupy
Pearl roundabout, a busy traffic intersection in Manama's
financial district, but the opposition is increasingly split.
Moderate opposition leaders urged hardliners to cancel the
march, warning it could spark clashes between Shi'ites
protesting against the government and Sunnis who support it.
Bahrain's top Shi'ite Muslim cleric warned protesters not to
slip into a sectarian conflict with Sunni Muslims that would
undermine the opposition's campaign for political reform.
"I say to all our people, Sunnis and Shi'ite, that it is
forbidden to shed the blood of anyone under any pretext. We must
all hold those who are inciting sectarian conflict accountable
for what they are doing," Sheikh Issa said in his Friday sermon.
Unlike mostly Sunni Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain is divided
between Shi'ites, who have long complained of discrimination in
access to jobs and services, and a Sunni minority.
Over half of Bahrain's 1.2 million population are
foreigners. Bahrainis disagree on the exact figures but analysts
say over 60 percent of Bahraini nationals are Shi'ite.
Moderates led by the largest Shi'ite party, Wefaq, are
calling for constitutional reforms and have called a less
provocative rally on Friday that is expected to draw tens of
The coalition of much smaller Shi'ite parties behind the
march on the royal court are calling for the overthrow of the
monarchy and the establishment of a republic -- demands that
have scared Sunnis who fear this would play into the hands of
the oil-producing Gulf's main Shi'ite power, non-Arab Iran.
"We want to bring down the government, and the al-Khalifas
are the government," said protester Said Ibrahim.
"They're (Sunnis are) gathering over there. They live here
but others are coming from other areas."
The march comes on a day of rallies in neighbouring Saudi
Arabia, the world's No. 1 oil exporter, where protests are
banned. On Thursday, police dispersed a gathering in its Eastern
Province, home to Shi'ites and joined to Bahrain by a causeway.
Both sides are watching closely, as any weakening of the
government in either of the neighbours could cause contagion.
Bahrain's interior ministry warned that the march threatened
internal security and its forces would prevent clashes.
"The attempt to organise a ... march towards Riffa is an
action which threatens security and community safety, due to the
anticipated reaction from residents to such actions," it said.
"The interior ministry confirms that forces to defend public
order will be present to prevent any clash that may occur."
On Thursday, the political and economic bloc of Gulf Arab
oil producers announced a $20 billion aid package for Bahrain
and Oman, both of which are facing anti-government protests.For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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