MAMAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain’s King Hamad dismissed the country’s opposition movement as disunited and said the threat of Iran had compelled him to call in foreign troops to crush last year’s uprising.
“In a sense there is no ‘opposition’ in Bahrain, as the phrase implies one unified block with the same views,” the king said extracts from an interview with Der Spiegel.
“Such a phrase is not in our constitution, unlike say the United Kingdom. We only have people with different views and that’s okay,” he said in the article to be published on Monday.
Bahrainis took to the streets last February, inspired by Arab world uprisings, and the government imposed martial law, stamping out the unrest with the help of Saudi troops in March.
Demonstrations began again after the emergency law was lifted in June and are escalating before the anniversary of the 2011 protests.
Mainly Shi‘ite opposition parties are demanding Bahrain’s elected parliament to have the power to form governments. Shi‘ites complain of political and economic marginalization by an entrenched elite who do not want to share power. The government denies this and says it is open to reforms.
The United States and Saudi Arabia see Bahrain, host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, as a key ally in their conflict with Iran over its nuclear energy program and extended regional influence.
Washington says the government should enter a new dialogue with the opposition. Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Michael Posner visited Manama last week and said the country must do more to heal the rifts left by the unrest.
Activists are ramping up protests with official opposition party marches, rallies licensed by the government and unofficial marches led by activists and rights figures in Manama.
Youths from the majority Shi‘ite community clash nightly with police in villages.
The king said the protesters’ refrain “Down with Hamad,” sounded by trumpets and car horns and chanted at rallies, was simply a case of bad manners and no reason to imprison people.
But he said chants in favor of Iran’s Supreme Ruler Ali Khamenei were a concern, echoing the government’s charge that Iran helped foment the uprising which, it says, had Shi‘ite sectarian motives. Pro-Khamenei chants have not been heard at opposition rallies.
“It’s just a case of manners. But when they shout ‘Down with the king and up with Khamenei’ that’s a problem for national unity,” he said.
Some Shi‘ites in Bahrain look to Khamenei as their spiritual guide, while analysts say more have Iraqi cleric Ali al-Sistani as their “source of emulation.” Government supporters often accuse the leading Shi‘ite opposition party Wefaq of links to Khamenei, charges the group strongly denies.
One man said police had briefly detained his 13-year-old son last week for sounding anti-Hamad slogans with a trumpet at an opposition rally.
The king, whose Al Khalifa family dominates government, said he brought in emergency law to protect women and expatriates, some of whom were attacked.
“Also our women were very scared and it is the duty of a gentleman to protect women, so I had to protect them,” he said.
Thirty-five people died by the time martial law ended, including protesters, police, Shi‘ite detainees and foreigners.
Influential Shi‘ite cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim accused police last month of attacking women, calling on protesters to respond to any violations of women’s honor.
The king told Der Spiegel he had called in Gulf Cooperation Council military help, mainly in the form of Saudi troops, to protect Bahrain’s “strategic installations...in case Iran would be more aggressive.”
Following the unrest, the government instituted reforms giving the elected chamber more powers of scrutiny over ministers and budgets.
Editing by Louise Ireland