SummaryAn early-morning crackdown March 16 in the Bahraini capital of Manama by Bahraini and Gulf Cooperation Council Peninsula Shield Forces seems to have achieved the desired effect of intimidating most of the Bahraini Shiite protest movement into keeping off the streets.
The situation remains fragile, with Iran attempting to position itself to come to the aid of the Bahraini Shia, but Tehran’s options appear increasingly constrained.
A tentative calm has come over the Bahraini capital of Manama following a predawn crackdown March 16 on the areas around Pearl Square, Bahrain Financial Harbor and Salmaniya Hospital by Bahraini and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Peninsula Shield Forces. A curfew from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. local time has been imposed in the main protest areas.
The Bahraini “youth movement” earlier announced that in spite of the crackdown, it would hold a march at 3:30 p.m. local time from Badaiya Highway, which is reportedly lined with soldiers, armoured personnel carriers and tanks. No signs of this protest have been reported as of 7 p.m. local time.
Thus far, it appears the crackdown has had the desired effect of intimidating the bulk of the Shiite protest movement into keeping off the streets and dispersing those who ventured out in spite of the March 15 state of emergency declaration. Significantly, the moderate Al Wefaq party, Bahrain’s largest Shiite opposition group, which won 18 out of 40 seats in parliament, said after the crackdown that it has not played any role in organising the protest called for by the youth movement. Though they have heavily criticised the entry of GCC troops into Bahrain and the use of violence against the demonstrators, an Al Wefaq official told Reuters, “Al Wefaq has advised people since this morning to avoid confrontation with security forces and to remain peaceful.” The hard-line Shiite protesters belonging to the Coalition for a Republic, which have demanded the overthrow of the monarchy in Bahrain, will meanwhile attempt to escalate the situation, but appear to be facing considerable constraints in unifying and conforming the Bahraini Shia to their agenda.
The situation remains tenuous, however. Iran has made a concerted effort to brand the conflict in Bahrain as a purely sectarian clash between Sunni and Shia, giving rise to the expectation that Tehran will intervene in defence of the Shia against Bahraini and Saudi forces. STRATFOR has received several indications from Iranian and Hezbollah-linked sources that Tehran intends to escalate the situation in Bahrain and amplify protests elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region, particularly in the oil-rich, Shiite-concentrated cities of al-Qatif and al-Hasa in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. However, when considering the constraints on Iran to operate effectively in these areas, intent and capability can diverge greatly. In the case of Bahrain, the Iranians need a more unified Shiite front willing to incur casualties to escalate the situation there, and so far, Al Wefaq’s actions suggest they are moving in the opposite direction.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, where Iran does have considerable room to manoeuvre, around 2,000 people reportedly demonstrated in Sadr City, east of Baghdad, in support of the Bahraini Shia, answering a call to protest by radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been travelling recently between Iran and Iraq. Smaller Shiite protests were also reported in Ad Diwaniyah, south-central Iraq, as well as in Basra and An Najaf in southern Iraq. Though Iran has considerable leverage in Iraq, it will likely face constraints there as it seeks to avoid disrupting the U.S. timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. Given the difficulty involved in organising protests on short notice, demonstrations following Friday prayers March 18 have far greater potential to bring out more people, particularly in places like Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and, potentially, Kuwait, where sectarian divisions are more likely to come to the fore.
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