MANAMA // Bahrain's King Hamad declared a three-month state of emergency and martial law yesterday about an hour before thousands of protesters marched towards the Saudi Embassy to protest against the arrival of GCC security forces in the kingdom.
Clashes took place around the country, some of them fatal. A Saudi security official said one of its soldiers was shot dead by a protester in the capital. Bahraini state television denied that, but said a member of Bahrain's security forces was run over in a southern village.
A Bahraini protester died of head wounds sustained during clashes on the Shiite island of Sitra, a medical official and activists said. A doctor there reported that hundreds of protesters were injured by shotgun blasts and clubs. A Bangladeshi man was also reported to have been killed on Sitra.
Bahrain recalled its ambassador to Tehran after Iran denounced the intervention of foreign troops as "unacceptable" and predicted it would complicate the kingdom's political crisis. Manama said the statement from Iran was "blatant interference" in its internal affairs.
Although Iran has no strong political ties to Bahrain's Shiite groups, some Iranian hardliners have hailed their efforts over the years for greater rights for their community, which represents a majority of the nation's population. In the past month of protests, the Shiite-led opposition has also pressed for political freedoms.
A government statement said King Hamad had declared martial law as a result of "increased lawlessness jeopardising the lives of citizens and resulting in the violation of private property, disruption of livelihoods and extending to the damage of state institutions".
It was not clear if the state of emergency would include imposition of a curfew or any clampdown on media or public gatherings.
The Bahrain Defence Force would now take measures to preserve the safety of the nation and its people, the statement said. It added that "other forces" could also be used if necessary, a possible reference to the Saudi-led forces in the country.
The Peninsula Shield force, which arrived on Monday, includes 1,000 Saudi soldiers, 500 UAE policemen and troops from Kuwait, Oman and Qatar.
They are in Bahrain to protect government facilities, a Saudi official said, but there was no evidence of the troops in the city centre yesterday.
At a press conference in Paris on Monday after the deployment of the force was announced, the UAE Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, said the UAE had been asked "to look at ways to help them to defuse the tension" in Bahrain. The force was there to "support the Bahraini government and to get calm and order in Bahrain, and to help both the Bahraini government and people to reach to a solution which is for the best for the Bahraini people".
Pro-government members of Bahrain's national assembly had called for martial law on Monday.
"In order for the situation to return to normal we have to establish order and security and … stop the violations which have spread disturbances among the people of our dear country," the interior minister, Sheikh Rashed al Khalifa, said in a television address, calling on Bahrainis to cooperate with security forces.
The protests have led to the capital shutting down. Most businesses were closed and a large area of the city blocked by makeshift barricades. Elsewhere in the country there were reports of sectarian clashes with vigilante gangs guarding many neighbourhoods.
Underlining the growing tensions, armed youths attacked the printing press of Bahrain's only opposition newspaper Al Wasat overnight in an effort to stop its publication.
"People are angry. We want this occupation to end. We don't want anybody to help the al Khalifa or us," said a protester who gave his name as Salman. "We're not going to attack the embassy, but if they attack we will defend ourselves."
Abdul Jalil Khalil, a leader of Bahrain's main Shiite group, Al Wefaq, said the monarchy's steps indicated it has decided on "a military solution to a political problem".
Wefaq said the force's arrival pushed Bahrain dangerously close to a state of "undeclared war".
The country's Shiite opposition alliance wants a constitutional monarchy and other democratic reforms though some of the more radical groups say they want to overthrow the Sunni dynasty.
For some in Bahrain the emergency law and the arrival of the foreign troops were welcome.
"It will make us feel safe," said a Pakistan-born woman who has lived in Bahrain most of her life. "We came and we supported the government and we have built this country."
The mother of one said she felt betrayed by the protesters.
Isa Jassim al Mutawa, a member of Al Asala, a Salafi political group, said: "These forces are to protect all Bahrainis, regardless of their sect."
The international community, including the United Nations, have called for restraint.
Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said: "One thing is clear: there is no military solution to the problems in Bahrain. A political solution is necessary and all sides must now work to produce a dialogue that addresses the needs of all of Bahrain's citizens."
In the past few days dozens of people have arrived at Manama hospitals suffering injuries from violent incidents around the country.
The protesters claim that since Monday "thugs" have been carrying out attacks in Shiite towns and villages to stir up trouble, but pro-government supporters say young hardline protesters have been responsible for the violence.
Faisal Foulad, secretary general of the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society, said the society was "very concerned" that the current situation was pushing the country nearer to civil wa", but he said he supported the arrival of GCC forces and blamed some the hardline protesters for not being willing to negotiate. "If they come to protect the sensitive places like the electricity plants, like the colleges, like the airports, then there is no problem."
Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said if the Peninsula Shield's mission were changed and it was used against demonstrating Bahrainis, that could be dangerous unless the Saudis have been trained in riot control.
That situation "can become very explosive through one mistake", Mr Karasik said.
"Here we have a situation of sectarian conflict that has risen to such a degree" that it has provoked GCC intervention, Mr Karasik added. "That's not happened before."
Mustafa Alani, an analyst with the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, interpreted the GCC intervention in Bahrain as a message to Washington that in blunt terms amounts to: "It's none of your business."
Mr Alani said: "The US attitude towards Mubarak was not encouraging and there is an impression that the US feels it can wash its hands of a situation in 10 minutes."
Fares Braizat of the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Qatar said: "Saudi Arabia is acting in self-interest because what happens in Bahrain has direct implications for Saudi Arabia - it cannot simply avoid intervention."
Sending in troops "is a very strong sign that Saudi Arabia will not allow significant change to happen in Bahrain", Mr Braizat said.
The move also demonstrates to Iran "that the GCC will stand as one when it comes to the security of one of them", Mr Braizat said. The decision on collective action was probably taken during recent meetings of the GCC foreign ministers in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.
* With additional reporting by Caryle Murphy in Riyadh, the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters