x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Concerns over Iran may push GCC to expand military presence

Foreign minister of Bahrain suggests that Gulf states establish more security units to counter any possible Iranian interference in the region.

The foreign minister of Bahrain has suggested that Gulf states establish more security units such as the one that helped Manama to quash mostly Shiite protests in the kingdom.

Sheikh Khalid al Khalifa said in an interview with PBS NewsHour on Wednesday that concerns over Iranian interference may push the Gulf Co-operation Council to reshape its military presence.

The opposition had hoped that the GCC would pull out of Bahrain when emergency law, imposed in March, ends on June 1.

"Any threat that any country would face would definitely, no doubt, affect its neighbours. Saudi Arabia is only 28 kilometres away from here. We are looking at the GCC force to be expanded, to have multi-bases everywhere in the GCC," he told the US television programme.

"So whether they leave or stay or be restructured, that's what is to be discussed in the future," he said.

Bahrain imposed emergency law and called in troops from Gulf countries in March to stop protests led mostly by its Shiite majority demanding democratic reforms. Some hardliners had called for a republic.

Iran, across the Arabian Gulf, has issued statements condemning the GCC troops' presence in the country. Bahraini Shiites insist they have no ties to Iran.

Sheikh Khalid told NewsHour that Bahrain was getting a "daily barrage" of statements from Iran that were worrying.

"I can tell you that they have people sympathising with them here," he said, adding that not all Shiites were siding with Iran. "There's definitely an Iranian interest group in Bahrain."

A military court yesterday sentenced nine people to 20 years in prison after they were convicted of kidnapping a policeman. One of the men sentenced was a prominent cleric and political activist.

International and local rights groups have criticised the government for the severity of its security sweep, in which masked troops manned checkpoints throughout the city and hundreds of people, mostly Shiite activists or politicians, were arrested. At least four detainees have died in custody.

Dozens of people have also disappeared, and hundreds of mostly Shiite workers have been fired from their jobs.

Government supporters have held two protests in the past week demanding security assurances after a man at a small protest at a checkpoint on Tuesday drove his car into a group of policemen, wounding nine of them.

Some 1,000 protesters in a Sunni neighbourhood of Manama rallied on Wednesday evening but several clerics urged them to return home.

Some of the demonstrators vowed to gather again after prayers today, a day that has taken on great significance since anti-government protests began sweeping the Arab region. Protesters have used Friday prayers to mobilise larger crowds.

In his NewsHour interview, Sheikh Khalid said that a security presence would still be high after emergency law was lifted despite the removal of tanks and military from the streets.

"It's a very delicate period. We want to ensure nothing goes wrong and we don't slide back to chaos."