Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Middle-East Status: Libya and Bahrain

Mar 16, 2011
Tensions rise over Gulf troops
Iran warns of dangerous consequences; Bahrain calls state of emergency
MANAMA: Tensions escalated in the Gulf yesterday with Iran warning of 'dangerous consequences' for a Saudi-led military force that entered Bahrain on Monday to help put down Shi'ite-led protests.

Bahrain's King Hamad Isa Al Khalifa responded by recalling his ambassador from Teheran to protest against Iran's 'blatant interference' in his country's internal affairs.

The King also declared a state of emergency and shortly afterwards state television reported that a member of the security forces had been killed in clashes with thousands of protesters.

The protesters - some wearing white to symbolise their readiness to die as martyrs - also ignored the emergency regulations and marched to the Saudi Embassy in the capital Manama.

'The Saudis are adding fire to the situation,' said Mr Hussein Ali, a 40-year-old mechanical engineer who camped overnight on a main street in Manama. 'We consider the Gulf force to be an invader.'

Troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), led by Saudi Arabia, moved into Bahrain on Monday, the first cross-border intervention since a wave of popular uprisings swept through parts of the Arab world.

The month-long protests in Bahrain have fuelled fears that unrest may spread to Saudi Arabia. Many Shi'ite Bahrainis retain cultural and family ties with Iran and other Shi'ites in the oil-rich eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia's Shi'ites, who make up about 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the population, have been holding protests every Thursday and Friday for the past few weeks in towns and villages a short drive from the Bahrain causeway connecting the two countries.

Monday's deployment of the GCC force has alarmed Iran, the main Shi'ite power in the Gulf, where most ruling families are Sunni Arabs.

Analysts say Saudi Arabia's action might increase tensions with Iran - both major oil exporters - to dangerous levels.

'The presence of foreign forces and interference in Bahrain's internal affairs are unacceptable and will further complicate the issue,' Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said at his weekly news conference in Teheran.

Iran, which has crushed opposition protests at home, has welcomed the uprisings across the Arab Middle East as an 'Islamic awakening' against despotic rulers. But accusations abound of Iranian backing for activists among the Shi'ite majority in Bahrain, a charge Teheran has denied.

Mr Mehmanparast yesterday dismissed as irrelevant a question about the possibility of Iran sending forces to Bahrain.

As tensions soared, the United States urged Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, to allow non-violent protests and encouraged Gulf nations to exercise restraint.

'One thing is clear: there is no military solution to the problems in Bahrain. A political solution is necessary and all sides must now work to produce a dialogue that addresses the needs of all of Bahrain's citizens,' White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said, when asked to comment on Bahrain declaring martial law.


Mar 16, 2011
Pro-Gaddafi forces close in on rebels
Govt warplanes launch fresh strikes amid offers of amnesty to rebels

AJDABIYA (LIBYA): Armed forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi have cranked up military and psychological pressure on the rebels, offering amnesty to those who surrendered their weapons but bombing a strategic linchpin in the east and regaining control of the last rebel-held town west of capital Tripoli.

Government warplanes on Monday launched fresh strikes against Ajdabiya, the town on the doorstep to the rebel base in Benghazi. If Col Gaddafi's forces are successful they could recapture the eastern border and surround the rebels with heavy armour and artillery.

'If he takes Ajdabiya, he will win,' said Mr Yunes Mohammed, an oil safety official. 'His people can go from here to Benghazi. But the people of Ajdabiya will fight because we know that if he takes the area, he will kill us all, and we know he has done this before.'

Residents of Zuwarah, an isolated city near the Tunisian border in the west, told Reuters that the pro-Gaddafi forces that encircled them three days before had taken control. 'Zuwarah is in their hands now,' said resident Tarek Abdallah. 'They control it and there is no sign of the rebels.'

But opposition forces say there is a split within Col Gaddafi's ranks, with some troops apparently reluctant to fire on civilians, a BBC correspondent reported.

The developments came as foreign governments continued to debate how or even whether they should intervene and help the Libyan rebels.

Foreign ministers from the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialised nations met in Paris on Monday to discuss the crisis but they were divided in their thinking, BBC News reported.

France is calling for a no-fly zone that would ground Libyan aircraft to protect people from assault by forces loyal to Col Gaddafi. But the United States, Russia and other European Union countries have reacted cautiously to such a proposal.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - who attended the meeting - also met a leader of the new opposition in Libya, Mr Mahmoud Jibril, for 45 minutes at a Paris hotel and discussed ways the US could assist, BBC News reported.

Rebels have asserted that the retreat of their forces is a tactical choice that allows them to reorganise and inject more experienced fighters into the ranks.

At the same time, the rebels have pleaded for international intervention and have repeatedly called for the no-fly zone. Their unrelenting pleas have made it clear that they hold little hope of defeating Gaddafi loyalists on their own.

In Benghazi, the vice-chairman of the interim opposition ruling council, Mr Abdul Hafidh Ghoga, said on Monday that a rebel representative would use that meeting of the G-8 to demand quicker intervention. Inaction, he warned, 'would have negative results on our future relations with the West'.

In the oil town of Brega, rebel fighters have been hiding inside the oil installation during the day, in the hope that the government would not want to shell the facility, BBC News reported.

In the face of the onslaught from Col Gaddafi's forces, the head of the rebel army and the country's former interior minister, General Abdul Fattah Younes, said the rebels still had 100 working tanks and thousands of soldiers which they would deploy later.

Col Gaddafi on Monday repeated an amnesty offer for rebels who give up their weapons, Reuters said, quoting state television. The response was not immediately clear.


[The status quo pushes back.]

Mar 16, 2011
US influence in region diminishing
By Jonathan Eyal

LONDON: The reality is that America's ability to influence events is now fading - for the joint military action undertaken by Gulf states will transform the Middle East, as well as hasten the confrontation between the Arab world and Iran.

As popular revolts swept through North Africa earlier this year, the Gulf nations believed themselves to be immune. With tiny populations and vast oil revenues, the region has the means to keep its people happy. Kuwait, for instance, announced that its citizens will get free food until next year, while Saudi Arabia unveiled massive social spending programmes.

Yet this did not prevent the turmoil from reaching Bahrain. Uniquely in the Gulf, the tiny kingdom has little oil or gas; it earns its living from financial services. And, more significantly, its population is majority Shi'ite, while its royal family is Sunni. So, when Bahrain's Shi'ites took to the streets demanding equal rights, they also challenged a millennium of Sunni regional domination.

The US administration, which initially persuaded King Hamad of Bahrain to offer political concessions to his people, continues to believe that the demonstrators are acting on their own, with no encouragement from neighbouring Iran, the region's big Shi'ite state. But no Arab government is persuaded: All regard the Shi'ites as agents of Iran.

For a while, Gulf states were content to leave Bahrain's government to handle the crisis. As long as the demonstrators were confined to a single area of Manama, the country's capital, their challenge appeared containable.

But behind the scenes, the situation deteriorated. Bahrain's Shi'ites are divided into three distinct political movements, and two of these adopted a radical platform which rejected any dialogue, calling for the monarchy's overthrow. Matters came to a head on Sunday, when huge demonstrations paralysed the country's financial centre, briefly overwhelming national security forces. That was the trigger which led to military intervention: Within hours, the first detachments of a Gulf force marched across the bridge which connects Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, at the invitation of the Bahraini government.

The surprise expressed by Western governments should not be taken seriously. The intelligence services of both the US and Britain have known since at least Feb 23 - when King Hamad of Bahrain had a meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia - that a military intervention was being planned. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who visited Bahrain over the weekend, also raised the matter with his hosts, arguing against an intervention. The fact that these appeals were ignored speaks volumes for the standing of the US in the region.

For Saudi Arabia - the prime mover behind the military action - is tired of the litany of what it regards as American errors in its region. The Saudis were also shocked by the way the US recently dumped Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak; the episode served as a reminder that America is only a fair-weather friend, eager to offer support when this is not needed, but absent when it matters. The Saudis therefore concluded that they have to defend their national interests as they see fit.

In undertaking their military operation, the Saudis were motivated by a straightforward calculation. They know that a democratic Bahrain can only be a Shi'ite-dominated one, and that this would be a disaster. For the Saudis themselves have a Shi'ite minority adjacent to Bahrain's borders, and it is also getting restless. To complicate matters, the Saudi Shi'ites live near some of the biggest oil deposits. Supporting the current Bahraini king was Saudi Arabia's only viable option.

Still, the operation represents a huge gamble. The force which entered Bahrain consists of roughly 1,200 Saudi soldiers, plus about 500 policemen from the United Arab Emirates and symbolic detachments from other Gulf states.

This is just enough to serve as a deterrent, but not enough to suppress riots should the demonstrators turn their anger against foreign troops.

There is also a danger that, as the Saudi government upholds the region's status quo, it will enrage its own population back home.

Meanwhile, Iran is also unlikely to stand still. It could begin to arm the Shi'ites; a low-level proxy war would then develop in the Gulf.

Either way, it is difficult to see how the US can benefit from these developments, almost regardless of their outcome.

For almost a century, the sheikhdoms of the Gulf, vulnerable and divided, relied on the protection of Britain and, subsequently, that of the US for their survival. Those days are now over: For better or worse, the region is defending itself.

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