Friday, February 18, 2011

Manama, Bahrain


Passed to the Telegraph by WikiLeaks 9:02PM GMT 18 Feb 2011
Date: 8/7/2008 14:43
Origin: Embassy Manama
Classification: SECRET
Destination: 04MANAMA378|06MANAMA1728|06MANAMA710|08MANAMA253|08MANAMA420|08MANAMA510|08MANAMA528


1.(U) Summary: This message describes Bahrain's leading Shi'a clerics and their organization, the Ulama Council. End Summary. ---------- Background ----------

2.(U) About two thirds of Bahrain's citizens are Shi'a. The Bahraini Shi'a look to a few senior clerics (Ulama) in Bahrain as their principal guides in religious doctrine and practice, as well as in many secular affairs. Many of these clerics established an independent Ulama Council in 2004. Local Sunni leaders, who often accuse the Shi'a of allegiance to Iran, often cite the fact that many leading Shi'a clerics studied in Qom, and that 10 to 15 percent of citizens are of Persian origin. (See ref F for more on Bahrain's relations with Iran.)

3.(C) Bahraini Shi'a clerics tend not to disclose whom they support financially or to whom they refer for guidance (i.e. their Marja'). Most Bahrainis believe their clerics refer to Najaf, although at least one senior cleric, Sayed Abdulla Al Ghoraifi, is close to Ayatollah Fadlallah in Lebanon, and one, Sheikh Mohammed Sanad, refers to Qom. During Saddam Hussein's regime, Bahraini clerics shifted their studies from Najaf to Qom out of security concerns. The GOB offers stipends to clerics of both sects, but most Shi'a clerics refuse the money - and the Shi'a community overwhelmingly distrusts the few who accept it.

4.(U) A cleric's rank does not directly correspond to his level of influence. The clerics identified below are the top ten clerics based on the Shi'a community's perception of their rank, influence, and reputation as scholars. --------------------------------------------- ------ Ulama Council - The Shi'a Clerics' Independent Body

5.(U) Leading Shi'a clerics, acting independently of the government, established Bahrain's Ulama Council in October, 2004, with the following four stated objectives: -- Maintain service to society (i.e., the Shi'a community) and its unity -- Protect and defend the Islamic identity of society -- Provide sanctuary and leadership for the Ulama -- Increase Islamic awareness in society The council maintains a website,, and staffs an office in Al Hillah village, Bahrain. The council relies on donations from Bahraini Shi'a for all its expenses. It claims to be apolitical, but its views have important consequences for some political questions in Bahrain. For example, in 2005 the Council declared that it would support a bill in parliament reforming personal status law only if the Ulama in Bahrain drafted it and the Marja' in Najaf reviewed and approved it. Because the government had proposed the law without such consultations, Shi'a street demonstrations convinced the government to withdraw the bill from parliament (Ref B). Many Shi'a view the Ulama Council in Bahrain as an extension of Najaf.

6.(U) The Ulama council is comprised of a general assembly, a central commission, an executive administration, and a women's administration. The general assembly elects seven members to the central commission for seven year terms, and rarely meets as a body. -- The central commission leads the council and issues its official statements. The General Assembly elects members to the commission; members then choose from among their number a chairman (Sheikh Isa Qassim -- para 8), deputy chairman (Sayed Abdulla al Ghoraifi -- para 15), and a spokesman (Sheikh Mohammed Sangoor). MANAMA 00000536 002 OF 004 -- Members of the general assembly volunteer for one of the five bureaus in the executive administration: - the Studies and Research bureau, - the Social Affairs bureau, - the Media and Public Relations bureau, - the Development and Services bureau, and - the Educational Outreach bureau. ----------------- Government Bodies -----------------

7.(U) The Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs claims responsibility for overseeing all mosques, ma'tams, endowments, and the Sharia court system. Eight of the 15 Sharia judges are Shi'a. The government also maintains the Supreme Islamic Council, comprised of Sunni and Shi'a clerics, who advise the government. In addition to the judges and members of the council, the government maintains a list of imams to whom it provides a monthly stipend. When popular Shi'a clerics returned from exile in 2001, the government offered them the stipend, but most rejected it. Most of the Shi'a population distrusts the clerics associated with the government, including the Shi'a members of the Sharia court and the Supreme Islamic Council. ------------------------------------ The Top Ten Shi'a Clerics in Bahrain ------------------------------------

8.(C) Sheikh Isa Qassim (Rank: 1, Influence: 1, Scholarship: 1) -- Most Bahrainis view Sheikh Isa Qassim as the senior Shi'a cleric. He and Sheikh Hussein Najati (para

9) vie for precedence in Bahrain's Shi'a community, and are the island's two Faqihs (jurisprudents). Although some of their followers call them Ayatallahs, many Shi'a assert that neither has really earned the title. Qassim is the founding chairman of the Ulama council. Born in Diraz in the 'forties, he studied in Najaf before returning to Bahrain. He served as a member of the lower house of parliament that the Amir dissolved in 1975. He remained an outspoken critic of the government, and was very close to the late spiritual leader of Bahrain, Sheikh Abdulamir Al Jamri. In 1994, Qassim went to study and teach in Qom, but remained focused on the grievances of Bahrain's Shi'a, sending numerous faxes and letters commenting on their status. When Qassim returned to Bahrain in 2002, he surprised the Shi'a population by announcing he would esc hew politics. He favors qualified engagement with the government so long as the government continues to permit legal Shi'a political and press activity, and he supported the Wifaq party when it ran for parliament. The Shi'a community does not take insults to Qassim lightly, as evidenced when 5,000 Shi'a marched in support of him on June 19 (ref E). Qassim rarely refers to Shi'a by name, preferring to speak of "Islam" and "Muslims" without reference to sects. He once declared, "If Sunnis were the ones discriminated against, I would stand up for them more than I stand up for the Shi'a." Qassim's admirers stress his humility and persuasiveness. He preaches at the mosque in Diraz village.

9.(C) Sheikh Hussein Najati (Rank: 2, Influence: 2, Scholarship: 3) -- Najati, the other Faqih, is not a member of the Ulama Council, but generally agrees with its public statements. Unlike many of the other clerics on this list, Najati's influence does not derive from his family, but instead from his status as a Faqih. He is in his early fifties and is an Ajmi -- a Bahraini Shi'a of Persian origin. Najati started his studies in Najaf, but transferred to Qom. He still refers to Najaf for guidance. When he returned to Bahrain in 2002, he was relatively unknown. He supported the government, and had several audiences with the King. Following the "Bandargate" scandal of 2006 (ref C) Najati began criticizing the government for allegedly betraying King Hamad's political reform project. He has called for the government to amend the constitution and improve the standard of living for all Bahrainis. Over the last several months, he has met repeatedly with the president of the Women's Union NGO and offered he r advice on drafting a second attempt at a bill reforming personal status law. According to local media, he told her that a successful family law must be accepted by the Shi'a community, be approved by the Marja' in Najaf, and include a guarantee that any future amendments will come from Sharia authorities, not Bahrain's parliament. Najati preaches on Muharraq island. MANAMA 00000536 003 OF 004

10.(C) Sheikh Mohammed Sanad (Rank: 3, Influence: 10, Scholarship: 2) -- Sanad is not a member of the Ulama Council, but generally agrees with its public statements. His relative influence on the Shi'a community is low because he only spends two months a year in Bahrain; the rest of his time he spends teaching advanced students in Qom. He is in his early fifties, and comes from a well-known Manama family. Politically, he opposes the government. In 2002, he called for the U.N. to oversee the drafting of Bahrain's new constitution out of distrust of the GOB's intentions (Note: Many Shi'a contend that the unilateral drafting of the 2002 constitution is evidence of the government's intent to marginalize them. End Note.). He has also publicly questioned the legitimacy of the Al Khalifa family's rule. The unlicensed opposition party, Haq, looks to him as its Marja', and he in turn refers to senior clerics in Qom. Sanad and Qassim take differing approaches to politics, but in June Sanad publicly supported Q assim following media attacks on him by a Sunni rabble-rouser (ref E).

11.(C) Sheikh Abduljalil Al Moqdad (Rank: 4, Influence: 6, Scholarship: 4) -- Al Moqdad is not a member of the Ulama council. He was born in the early sixties in Bilad Al Qadeem village and continues to lead prayers there. (NOTE: Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary General of the Wifaq party, lives in Bilad Al Qadeem (see septel for a profile of Bahrain's political parties.). End Note). He refers to Najaf for guidance. A relative newcomer to the list of influential clerics, Shi'a started talking about him in 2006, the same year that Haq split from Wifaq (septel). Most of his followers support Haq. Much of his influence derives from his humble beginnings and continued closeness to the poor. Al Moqdad is also close to Najati, and replaces him as Imam in Muharraq when he travels. Al Moqdad distrusts the government and considers Wifaq ineffective and uncaring. Al Moqdad criticized Wifaq leader Ali Salman's quick condemnation of rioters after a police officer died in April (ref D). Al Moqdad believes that Wif aq, rather than immediately condemning the rioters, should have waited to see how the community and government responded before issuing a statement. Al Moqdad has called for Qassim, Najati, Al Ghoraifi, and Al Wadaee to publish joint statements on issues of concern to the Shi'a. The Shi'a street believes that Al Moqdad handles much of the money Bahrainis send to clerics abroad.

12.(C) Sheikh Abdulhussein Al Sitri (Rank: 5, Influence: 7, Scholarship: 7) -- Al Sitri is a member of the Ulama Council, but does not hold an executive position. He is in his late sixties/early seventies. Shi'a supporters praise his humble personality and accessibility. He refuses to engage with the government. During the late eighties and early nineties, security forces raided his home and large library several times. In the late nineties Sheikh Ahmed Al Asfoor (para 16), acting on behalf of the GOB, invited Al Sitri to sit on the government-recognized Shi'a Sharia court as a judge -- Al Sitri refused. Al Sitri refrains from making political statements in public, and makes only general comments in private. He studied in Najaf, and continues to refer to the clerics there. He does not endorse the Iranian regime's doctrine of velayat-e-faqih. He preaches on Sitra island.

13.(C) Sayed Jawad Al Wadaee (Rank: 6, Influence: 3, Scholarship: 9) -- Al Wadaee is a member of the Ulama Council, but does not hold an executive position. He is in his late seventies. Much of his influence derives from his family and his status as a Sayed. He has repeatedly declined appointments to the official Shi'a Sharia court and other government positions. He refuses to get involved with politics. He maintains his own Hawza (religious college) in Bahrain. He refers to senior Bahraini clerics in Najaf, who have praised his integrity, and studied with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Al Wadaee lives in Barbar village, and leads prayers in Ras Ruman.

14.(S) Sheikh Hameed Al Mubarak (Rank: 7, Influence: 8, Scholarship: 5) -- Al Mubarak is not a member of the Ulama Council. He was born in 1962 to a well known, well respected, and wealthy family, from which he derives most of his influence. Al Mubarak serves as a senior Shi'a judge on the Sharia court. His reputation and influence suffer from his position with the government, but not as much as some of the other clerics who accept the government stipend. He is viewed as a relatively liberal, very bookish cleric. He taught himself English, went to the U.S. on an Embassy VOLVIS MANAMA 00000536 004 OF 004 exchange in 2006, and participated in a roundtable discussion on women's rights hosted by Secretary Rice in March, 2008. He contributed to a USG-funded Freedom House family law project, writing the Shi'a perspective on personal status law in Bahrain. He maintains that the Marja' in Najaf should review any family law reform bill. He likes to bring his Iranian wife with him to meetings, including a two hour meeting with Ambassado r March 30. Al Mubarak expressed to Emboff his interest in connecting with clerics in other countries who oppose Lebanese Hezbollah's influence. He leads prayers in A'ali.

15.(C) Sayed Abdulla Al Ghoraifi (Rank: 8, Influence: 5, Scholarship: 8) -- Al Ghoraifi serves as the deputy chairman of the Ulama Council. Much of Al Ghoraifi's influence derives from his well-respected family and from his status as a Sayed. In his early fifties now, he lived in Lebanon in the early 1990's, and became very close with Ayatallah Fadlallah, eventually becoming Fadlallah's representative in Bahrain. His admirers cite his persuasiveness and calm. He addresses politics in his sermons, and regularly calls for dialogue with the regime and the Sunni community. When he critiques the government, he does so in a low-key manner which has reportedly earned him the King's respect. Bahrain TV news from time to time runs stock footage of the King attending Al Ghoraifi's majlis. Although his family is from Manama, Al Ghoraifi leads prayers in Nuaim village.

16.(C) Sheikh Ahmed Al Asfoor (Rank: 9, Influence: 4, Scholarship: 10) -- Sheikh Ahmed Al Asfoor is not a member of the Ulama Council. His influence derives from his late father, Khalaf Al Asfoor, who was the leading Faqih of Bahrain, and his age -- he is in his late seventies. He was a senior judge on the Sharia court and is now an advisor to the Supreme Islamic Council. XXXXXXXXXXXX He is the uncle of Sheikh Mohsin Al Asfoor (para 17). The Asfoor family fell out of favor with the government following King Hamad's accession, although they may be rebounding as evidenced by the Minister of the Royal Court's recent visit to the Asfoor majlis, and the prominent placement of Sheikh Ahmed at a meeting the King held with clerics on July 26 (ref F).

17. (C) Sheikh Mohsin Al Asfoor (Rank: 10, 9, Scholarship: 6) -- Sheikh Mohsin Al Asfoor is not a member of the Ulama Council. He is in his late forties. While studying in Najaf in the eighties, he denounced the Al Khalifa family in a book. When he returned to Bahrain, he renounced the book and his former political positions. XXXXXXXXXXXX Like his uncle, his influence derives from his family, specifically his grandfather and father. He continues to accept the government's stipend, and most Shi'a perceive him to be motivated by money. This perception is bolstered by his positions on the boards of directors of several Islamic banks, insurance, and investment firms. When he leads prayer, it is in Manama. --------- Also-Rans --------

- 18. (C) Mohammed Ali Al Mahfouth is identified with the followers in Bahrain of the late Ayatallah Shirazi. A number of Bahrain's Shirazis were jailed for sedition in the 1990s; Al Mahfouth spent much of the nineties in Damascus calling for the overthrow of the Al-Khalifahs. He and his followers were eventually pardoned. The Shirazis reject velayat-e faqih. Mahfouth is the chairman of the small Amal party (septel), which has no seats in parliament. Despite his political proximity to the unregistered Haq movement, and his frequent presence at demonstrations, he has issued statements supporting the King's recent call for calm and dialogue to address sectarian tensions (ref F). Al Mahfouth leads prayers in Bani Jamrah, a frequent hotspot for anti-Al Khalifa demonstrations.


Disparities in wealth have angered the masses

Mayhem in capital as live rounds fired on protesters
Gadafy threatens harsh response to protest challenge
One million gather again in Tahrir square, this time in celebration
RCSI executive travels to Bahrain to check on college students and staff

ANALYSIS : Recent boom times have created an angry underdog, writes FINIAN CUNNINGHAM in Manama

“HAVE YOU ever seen an island with no beaches?” The question posed by the young Bahraini taxi man standing among thousands of chanting anti-government protesters seemed at first to be a bit off the wall. But his explanation soon got to the heart of the grievances that have brought tens of thousands of Bahrainis onto the streets over the past week – protests which have seen at least seven civilians killed amid scenes of violence by state security forces. Unconfirmed reports put the death toll much higher.

Many Bahrainis, like the young taxi man, have witnessed huge wealth sloshing around their tiny country of less than 600,000 indigenous people (there are perhaps another 300,000 expatriates – official figures are vague). But so little of that wealth – especially in the last seven years of high oil prices when Bahrain’s national revenue tripled – has found its way into creating jobs and decent accommodation. More than 50,000 Bahraini families are estimated to be on waiting lists for homes.

Some families have been waiting for over 20 years to be housed, with several generations sharing the one roof, in cramped conditions with poor sanitation.

All the while, these people have come to feel like strangers in their own land, their squalid conditions in inner-city areas and villages standing in sharp contrast to the shopping malls and multistorey buildings that have sprung up to attract US and European investors, financiers, companies and wealthy tourists.

The Gulf island’s oil wealth has been channelled into diversifying the economy away from dependence on oil and gas revenues into other sectors such as property development and international banking. The kingdom, which is sandwiched between the oil and gas giants of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has leveraged its hydrocarbon wealth to earn a reputation as a finance and trade hub in the Middle East on a par with Dubai, located further south along the Arabian Peninsula in the United Arab Emirates.

But that reputation for being a cutting-edge capitalist hub – Bahrain is the only country in the Gulf region to have signed a free trade agreement with the US – comes at a heavy social and ecological cost. And it is a cost that seems to have pushed a large section of the population too far, to the point where they are emulating the protests in Tunisia, Egypt to demand long-overdue democratic rights.

In the early hours of Thursday, up to 5,000 Bahraini protesters were forced from the main demonstration site at the Pearl Roundabout, a landmark intersection in the capital, Manama. The Bahraini authorities deployed helicopters, dozens of tanks and armoured personnel carriers, with army and police firing tear gas and live rounds. Among the protesters were hundreds of women and children.

At the centre of the site is the Pearl Monument, which alludes to the country’s traditional pearl diving and fishing industries – industries that were the mainstay of communities.

Within view of the monument are the iconic skyscrapers of Bahrain’s newfound wealth, including the Financial Harbour and the World Trade Centre. Only a few years ago, this entire area of the capital was sea, the land having since been reclaimed and developed. Up to 20 per cent of Bahrain’s total land area has been reclaimed from the sea over the past three decades.

However, this vast reclamation and development drive has, according to local environmental groups, devastated the island’s marine ecology and fish stocks in particular. The rampant development – which has made fortunes for the country’s elite – has had an equally devastating effect on local communities who have depended on the sea for their livelihoods.

While these communities have suffered the blight of unemployment and poverty, they also have witnessed roaring property development, land prices and profits benefiting the ruling elite.

These communities have watched their country’s oil wealth being directed to serve elite interests with development plans that are geared to lure international capital. This has led to swathes of coastal areas being confiscated by members of the extended al-Khalifa royal family, to be earmarked for future reclamation and skyscraper development. That is how Bahrain has become something of a paradox – an island without any beaches. And it is this lopsided, elite-orientated development that is fuelling deep social grievances among the masses, grievances that are now being directed at those elites.

Further state repression against such protests can only amplify these grievances.

Bahrain’s unstable social formation is underpinned by unwavering US diplomatic and military support. The island serves as the base for the US Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf. The latest wave of state repression has elicited only a subdued, ambivalent comment from Washington, urging “all sides to refrain from violence” – a call many Bahrainis interpreted as support for the government. Last year, Bahrain received $19.5 million (€14.3 million) in US military aid, which, on a per capita basis, is higher than that delivered to Egypt.

This week’s events in Bahrain represent another uprising against a US-designated “important ally” in the Arab world. And once again, the conflict between elite rule and widespread poverty – all the more glaring in oil-rich countries – is ultimately undermining Washington’s influence.

MANAMA, BAHRAIN – Soldiers fired tear gas and shot heavy weapons into the air as thousands of protest marchers defied a government ban and streamed toward the landmark square that had been the symbolic center of the uprising against the Gulf nation's leaders.

Hospital officials said at least 20 people were injured, some seriously. Ambulance sirens were heard throughout central Manama a day after riot police swept through the protest encampment in Pearl Square, killing at least five people.

It is also being reported that four people were killed as shots were fired Friday near Pearl Square.

An Associated Press cameraman saw army units shooting anti-aircraft weapons above the protesters in apparent warning shots and attempts to drive them back from security cordons about 200 yards (200 meters) from the square.

The clash came just hours after funeral mourners and worshippers at Friday prayers called for the toppling of the Western-allied monarchy in the tiny island nation that is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

President Barack Obama is condemning reports of violence in response to protests in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen. He's calling on the governments of those countries to show restraint.

The cries against the king and his inner circle — at a main Shiite mosque and at burials for those killed in Thursday's crushing attack — reflect an important escalation of the political uprising, which began with calls to weaken the Sunni monarchy's power and address claims of discrimination against the Shiite majority in the tiny island nation.

The mood, however, appears to have turned toward defiance of the entire ruling system after the brutal crackdown on a protest encampment in Bahrain's capital, Manama, which left at least five dead, more than 230 injured and put the nation under emergency-style footing with military forces in key areas and checkpoints on main roads.

"The regime has broken something inside of me. ... All of these people gathered today have had something broken in them," said Ahmed Makki Abu Taki at the funeral for his 23-year-old brother, Mahmoud, who was killed in the pre-dawn sweep through the protest camp in Manama's Pearl Square. "We used to demand for the prime minister to step down, but now our demand is for the ruling family to get out."

The White House has expressed "strong displeasure" about the rising tensions in Bahrain. The 5th Fleet is the centerpiece of the Pentagon's efforts to confront growing Iranian military ambitions in the region.

At a Shiite mosque in the village of Diraz, an anti-government hotbed, imam Isa Qassim called the Pearl Square assault a "massacre" and thousands of worshippers chanted: "The regime must go."

In a sign of Bahrain's deep divisions, government loyalists filled Manama's Grand Mosque to hear words of support for the monarchy and take part in a post-sermon march protected by security forces. Many arrived with Bahraini flags draped over the traditional white robes worn by Gulf men. Portraits of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa were distributed.

"We must protect our country," said Adnan al-Qattan, the cleric leading prayers. "We are living in dangerous times."

He also denounced attempts to "open the doors to evil and foreign influences" — an apparent reference to suspicions that Shiite powerhouse Iran could take advantages of any gains by Bahrain's Shiites, who account for about 70 percent of the population.

The pro-government gathering had many nonnative Bahrainis, including South Asians and Sunni Arabs from around the region. Shiite have long complained of policies to give Sunnis citizenship and jobs, including posts in security forces, to offset the Shiite majority.

Outside a Shiite village mosque, several thousand mourners gathered to bury three of the men killed in the crackdown. The first body, covered in black velvet, was passed hand to hand toward a grave as it was being dug.

Amid the Shiite funeral rites, many chanted for the removal of king and the entire Sunni dynasty that has ruled for more than two centuries in Bahrain — the first nation in the Gulf to feel the pressure for changes sweeping the Arab world.

"The government has shaken something inside us all and we have lost all trust in it," Mohamed Ali, 40, a civil servant, said as he choked back tears. "Our demands were peaceful and simple at first. We wanted the prime minister to step down. Now the demands are harsher and have reached the pinnacle of the pyramid. We want the whole government to fall."

There were no security forces near the mosque on the island of Sitra, where three of those killed had lived.

But in Manama, soldiers guarded the capital's main areas and placed roadblocks and barbed wire around Pearl Square and other potential gathering sites. Work crews were busy trying to cover up the protest graffiti.

In another funeral in the Shiite village of Karzkan, opposition leaders urged protesters to keep up their fight but not to seek revenge.

"We know they have weapons and they are trying to drag us into violence," said Sheik Ali Salman, the leader of the largest Shiite party, Al Wefaq, whose 18 lawmakers have resigned in protest from the 40-seat parliament to deepen the political crisis.

On Thursday, Bahrain's leaders banned public gatherings to try to keep the protest movement from re-igniting. But the underlying tensions in Bahrain run even deeper than the rebellions for democracy that began two months ago in Tunisia and later swept away Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and is challenging old-guard regimes in Libya and Yemen.

In the government's first public comment on the crackdown, Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa said Thursday it was necessary because the demonstrators were "polarizing the country" and pushing it to the "brink of the sectarian abyss."

Speaking to reporters after an emergency meeting with his Gulf counterparts in Manama to discuss the unrest, he called the violence "regrettable," said the deaths would be investigated and added that authorities chose to clear the square by force at 3 a.m. — when the fewest number of people would be in the square — "to minimize any possibility of casualties."

Many of the protesters were sleeping and said they received little warning of the assault. More than 230 people were injured, some seriously.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Washington must expand efforts for political and economic reforms in places such as Bahrain. "There is an urgency to this," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In the midst of the protests, WikiLeaks has released new State Department cables detailing basic Bahraini foreign policy and concerns about regional powerhouse Iran. One intriguing cable also consists of questions sent by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton asking the embassy to evaluate the leadership potential of the country's top princes.

The cable includes questions about relationships between the princes, their influence on government, views of the United States and whether any of them have histories of drug or alcohol use. There is no record of any answers.

Elsewhere, the European Union and Human Rights Watch urged Bahraini authorities to order security forces to stop attacks on peaceful protesters.

The protesters had called for the monarchy to give up its control over top government posts and all critical decisions and address deep grievances by Shiites, who claim they face systematic discrimination and poverty and are effectively blocked from key roles in public service and the military.

Shiites have clashed with police before in protests over their complaints, including serious confrontations in the 1990s. But the growing numbers of Sunnis joining the latest demonstrations have come as a surprise to authorities, said Simon Henderson, a Gulf specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"The Sunnis seem to increasingly dislike what is a very paternalistic government," he said, adding that the crackdown was "symptomatic" of Gulf nations' response to crises. "As far as the Gulf rulers are concerned, there's only one proper way with this and that is: be tough and be tough early."

The Bahrain violence forced the cancellation of a lower-tier open-wheel race in Bahrain for Friday and Saturday, and leaves in doubt the March 13 season-opening Formula One race at the same track.

Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone said he will decide next week whether to proceed with the race.

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