16th Aug 2022

EU officials: Bahrain situation more dangerous than Libya

  • Shia Muslims in Kuwait protest in support of Bahrain counterparts - the Gulf unrest is taking on a sectarian and regional dimension (Photo: Kuwait-Ra'ed Qutena)

Security specialists in the EU institutions are concerned that Shia-Sunni unrest in Bahrain has the potential to cause a sectarian conflict in the wider Arabian Gulf.

"What is happening in Bahrain is Sunni versus Shia, Saudi Arabia versus Iran. It's big powers facing off against each other in a small place. It's really explosive. We share the same concerns with the US and with Russia," one EU source told this website on Wednesday (16 March) on condition of anonymity.

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"From a foreign policy point of view, it's a very big issue. We don't know where it will go," another EU contact noted, referring to a decision by Sunni powers Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to send security forces to Bahrain to quell protests. "If Saudi Arabia and Iran become openly involved, it could become much more dangerous than Libya."

Writing in his blog on Wednesday, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt voiced similar concerns: "While there was most likely initially no Iranian interference, the opportunities for Iran to take advantage of the situation now undeniably grow."

Several EU countries, including the UK and Malta, have issued travel warnings for their citizens not to go to Bahrain or to leave the island nation as quickly as possible.

The UK Press Association reported that Britain has chartered commercial flights to get people out of the capital Manama on Thursday. It is unclear how many British citizens - the largest EU contingent in the country - reside in Bahrain. But 20 member states have notified an EU office dealing with consular co-ordination that there are 2,000 other EU citizens in place.

"The problem is there are no direct flights to Europe. And all the other flights are full. We are hearing that it's difficult to get to the airport because it is a major risk to leave your house and to travel on the roads," one of the EU officials added.

The nervous atmosphere comes after masked Bahraini troops fired live rounds at protesters in the capital's Pearl Square on Wednesday. Six people, including three policemen, reportedly died in the fighting, and hundreds were injured. Security forces overnight also swooped on the houses of opposition activists, taking three opposition leaders into custody.

Shia-dominated neighbour Iran on Wednesday recalled its ambassador to Bahrain and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blamed the US, which has a large naval base in the country, for plotting the crackdown with Saudi Arabia.

"The US seeks to save the Zionist regime [Israel] and to suppress popular uprisings. So, it supports certain governments," he said in remarks quoted by national press agencies.

A prominent Shia cleric in Iraq, Moqtada al-Sadr, and the militant Shia movement in Lebanon, Hezbollah, have also called for street rallies in support of Bahraini demonstrators.

Shia Muslims make up around 70 percent of Bahrain's 1.2 million population, but the ruling Sunni royal clan has a monopoly on power.

Sarkozy: save Libyan 'martyrs'

On the Libyan front, the UN Security Council in New York on Wednesday failed to agree on a British-French-Lebanese resolution to permit military strikes against Colonel Gaddafi. A follow-up debate and vote is expected on Thursday.

France believes the draft resolution - which "authorises member states to take all necessary measures to enforce compliance with the ban on flights ... and to prevent any use of aircraft for aerial attacks against the civilian population" - would give it the legal basis to launch immediate air strikes on Gaddafi targets.

"Together we can save the Libyan people from being martyred. Time is being counted in days, or even hours," French President Nicolas Sarkozy wrote in a letter to the UN powers, seen by EUobserver.

The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, indicated that President Barack Obama is willing to put troops on the ground. "We need to be prepared to contemplate steps that include, but perhaps go beyond, a no-fly zone at this point," she told press in New York.

A French security expert whose company advises EU diplomats and intelligence services warned that military action in Libya could have unforeseen consequences.

"If we strike Gaddafi, we risk creating an Afghanistan or an Iraq, if you prefer, 500 km from our coastlines. We will destabilise a country which is ethnically highly-complex and which has a large stock of weapons. We will create a zone with no rule of law," the contact said.

Sweden to extradite man wanted by Turkey

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