* Spokesman says authorities ready to get tougher
* Opposition says post-uprising dialogue has stopped
* Saudi Arabia applying diplomatic pressure on Bahrain
By Andrew Hammond
DUBAI, May 8 Bahrain vowed on Tuesday to crack
down harder on anti-government protests as a leading opposition
figure said the government had put a stop to talks on addressing
the political grievances that fuelled last year's pro-democracy
Bahraini media have reported a new security plan to "restore
order" to the Sunni-ruled Gulf monarchy and, in recent days,
authorities have detained a leading activist and warned a top
Shi'ite cleric to stop alleged incitement to violence.
The moves coincide with a Saudi push for a Gulf union,
likely to be discussed at a May 14 summit of Gulf leaders in
Saudi Arabia, already heavily influential in the smaller
fellow-Sunni monarchy, is keen to see Bahrain stem the upsurge
of Shi'ite and Islamist resentment that was a large part of last
year's uprising, and sent troops to help quell the revolt.
Bahraini government spokesman Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak
Al Khalifa told Reuters: "Because of the escalation in violence,
we are looking into the perpetrators and people who use print,
broadcast and social media to encourage illegal protest and
violence around the country."
"If applying the law means tougher action, then so be it,"
Asked about the dialogue with the opposition, he said
opposition parties must first declare they are prepared for
talks without preconditions.
"BACK TO SQUARE ONE"
"This escalation is not good for the country, it will take
us back to square one," said Abduljalil Khalil, a senior member
of the leading opposition party Wefaq who was involved in
meetings this year with royal court minister Khaled bin Ahmed.
"The talks have stopped, so the authorities are really
moving to another phase of the security approach," he said. "I
don't know if it was the hardliners in the family or from
outside, but at any rate the outcome now is that everything has
A cabinet statement on Sunday warned clerics against
incitement to violence, sectarianism, harming the economy and
insulting institutions of state.
A government adviser said the comments were directed against
Sheikh Isa Qassim, a leading Shi'ite cleric who led a mass
protest some 100,000 people in March and in January called on
protesters to "crush" policeman who attacked women.
Wefaq's Khalil said any move against Qassim, such as banning
him from preaching, would inflame the Shi'ite opposition and
would indicate that government hardliners "really want to burn
the country" to maintain the status quo.
Clashes between police and youth protesters in Shi'ite
villages have worsened this year.
Last week a parliamentarian announced a new Interior
Ministry plan to deal with the protests, though the ministry was
not able to respond immediately to a request for details.
Bahrain's status as a banking and tourism hub is under
threat from the continued unrest. Economic growth more than
halved in 2011, and even weekend Saudi revellers seeking escape
from the kingdom's strict social controls have dried up.
Tension rose in the run-up to last month's Formula One Grand
Prix, when world media got a close glimpse of protests that the
government wants confined to hidden Shi'ite neighbourhoods.
"Since Formula One there are around 200 people still held
and there have been around 150 people wounded, about 60 of them
from birdshot," said Mohammed al-Maskati, head of the Bahrain
Youth Society for Human Rights.
Nabeel Rajab, a key protest leader who heads the Bahrain
Centre for Human Rights, has been held since Saturday on charges
of organising illegal marches, and prosecutors are weighing
further charges of inciting rioting via Twitter.
Rajab's 140,000 followers on the social media network make
him one of the most widely known activists in the Arab world.
The Interior Ministry says 15 policemen have been wounded by
three separate homemade bombs within the last month.
Wefaq says riot police attacks on protesters have taken the
death toll since the unrest began last year to 81, although the
government questions the attribution of many of those deaths.
It says that, since martial law ended last June, only one
person has been killed by live fire, from an unknown assailant,
and has neither confirmed nor denied opposition allegations that
security forces use birdshot pellets on protesters.
Justin Gengler, a researcher on Bahrain based in Qatar, said
the government had ditched dialogue in favour of a security
crackdown to appease Sunni hardliners and avoid demands by other
Sunnis for action on corruption and political reform.
"They do not want Sunnis and Shi'ites at the same table, but
they can at least appeal to those Sunnis who want the harsher
security response," he said, noting a recent Sunni call for the
veteran prime minister to stand down - a stock Shi'ite demand.
Gengler said Saudi Arabia was pressuring the government to
take steps to end the turmoil. "The talk about union is a way to
pressure the Bahrainis to get their house in order," he said.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)