| SITRA, Bahrain, March 24
SITRA, Bahrain, March 24 Bahraini police clashed
with anti-government protesters on Saturday at a Shi'ite town
where residents tried to demonstrate against the Gulf Arab
state's holding of a Formula One race next month.
Hundreds of riot police backed by dark blue armoured
vehicles and jeeps patrolled the streets of Sitra, a poor
district southeast of Manama where youths threw petrol bombs and
stones at security forces who responded with tear gas canisters,
Reuters witnesses said.
Sitra has long been a flashpoint area where Shi'ite Muslim
youths vent anger against a government they feel marginalises
them politically and economically.
The Sunni-led government blames Shi'ite clerics for the
communal conflict, saying they had turned people against the
state and incited Shi'ites to raise the temperature on the
streets ahead of the race.
Anger on the streets of Sitra rose each time patrols had
passed and residents taunted security forces by shouting from
inside houses, banging on trash bins and honking horns.
"Come here, you immigrants", youths shouted, referring to
foreign Sunni Muslim hires working with riot police. Some
chanted against the island's ruler, King Hamad.
"You know, it's been going on like this for 30 years, and
they still don't want to give us our rights," said Ali Mansour,
a 45-year-old taxi driver sheltering with his wife in a car as
fumes began to seep in from more canisters that landed nearby.
Bahrain has been bitterly divided since its Shi'ite majority
led protests last year for reforms they hope would reduce the
powers of the ruling Al Khalifa family, give parliament
legislative clout and bring opposition figures into government.
Some called for ditching the monarchy altogether, angering
many Sunnis who view the royal family as a force for good and
protection against Shi'ite empowerment.
The authorities crushed the protest movement, which was
inspired by revolts that brought down entrenched rulers in Egypt
and Tunisia, by imposing a period of martial law and bringing in
Saudi and other Gulf Arab troops to help win back control of the
But over a year later, ongoing unrest - with clashes in
Shi'ite villages and large opposition party marches - has
damaged Bahrain's economy and alarmed Western allies.
They view Bahrain as an important ally in their standoff
with Iran over its nuclear programme but want the government to
resolve the conflict by reaching a deal with the opposition.
A U.N. rights body this week expressed concern over the use
of excessive force and tear gas by Bahraini security forces.
Sitra is covered in anti-government graffiti describing the
king as a tyrant and glorifying imprisoned community leaders.
One poster cited a condemnation by Iran's leader Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei of the concept of kingship as un-Islamic.
Many streets are strewn with concrete blocks, pieces of wood
and trashbins to stop police cars moving into the back alleys.
King Hamad took power in 1999 and vowed to restore
parliament and introduce democratic reforms, receiving a
rapturous welcome in 2001. He freed prisoners after taking
office but came under pressure to introduce further reforms
following last year's protests.
Now Bahrain's Formula One Grand Prix on April 20-22 has
become embroiled in the troubles, as opposition groups vow to
step up protests. Police pulled down posters on the walls in
Sitra saying "No Formula 1 in Bahrain".
"They are paying a lot for Formula One, while people are
dying every day," said Mirza Rabia, 41, a government employee.
Activists say at least 33 people have died since June amid
daily clashes in Shi'ite districts, as the government tries to
lock protesters in to stop any renewed mass movement in Manama.
Police question the causes of death and their attribution to
the conflict. They say they are showing restraint in the face of
violent youth challenging state authority.
"We are the government and these guys are scum. Molotov
cocktails are not peaceful, they make it rain with molotovs,"
said a police corporal who declined to be named.
He said it was difficult to imagine integrating people from
Shi'ite communities into the police force - a key recommendation
from former Miami police chief John Timoney who is advising the
interior ministry on improving conduct.