Thousands march on Bahrain royal court

Protests continue in Gulf state where further clashes between Shi'ites and Sunnis are expected
Thousands march on Bahrain royal court
Protesters in Bahrain. (Getty Images)
By Reuters
Fri 11 Mar 2011 12:59 PM

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.

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