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GCC counters Iran ‘threat’

Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa of Bahrain said on Monday that Saudi and Emirati forces called in to help quell street unrest would leave only when “any external threat” related to Iran had vanished.

He was speaking at a news conference in Dubai in which he suggested that troops from the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council could be stationed in Bahrain for some time, adding that they would remain until “a threat” to GCC nations from the overwhelmingly Shiite state of Iran was over.

“There are no Saudi forces, there are GCC forces and they will leave when they are done [addressing] any external threat,” he told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference in the United Arab Emirates.

When asked to elaborate, Sheikh Khalifa said, “The external threat is a regional one. [It is also] a complete misunderstanding between the GCC and Iran. This is a threat.”

“I am not pointing fingers here, but what we are seeing from Iran, (in regards to) Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the occupation of the islands of the Emirates, doesn’t make the situation a positive one. It keeps it a constant threat,” the foreign minister said.

Bahrain—whose population is 1.2 million and GDP nearly $30 billion—saw protests erupt in February with demonstrators demanding more freedom, an end to discrimination and constitutional monarchy.

Authorities responded with force by deploying security forces in the capital. They called in troops from Gulf neighbors Saudi Arabia and the UAE under the auspices of a Gulf defense pact.

The mainly Shiite protesters have rejected accusations that they were supported by the regime in Tehran or by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah based in Lebanon. Both Iran and Hezbollah have denied training demonstrators.

Iran complained to the United Nations about the deployment of GCC forces in Bahrain and said it could not remain indifferent to the crackdown on protests.

“Bahrain has witnessed a coup attempt,” Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa of Bahrain said in remarks carried by pro-government media on Monday. “No violators will get away with it. All co-conspirators and abettors must be held accountable.”

The unrest has stirred tension in the world’s leading oil-exporting region with Saudi Arabia and Iran trading accusations of meddling in Bahrain affairs.

Hundreds of Bahrainis who took part in the protests have been arrested and state-owned firms have fired Shiite workers who were absent from work during a general strike called for by unions.

At least 29 people have been killed since the protests started including six non-Shiites. The six included two foreigners—an Indian and a Bangladeshi—and four policemen.

Mattar Ibrahim Mattar, a former parliamentarian from the Shiite opposition group Wefaq, said police on Sunday attacked a traditional celebration marking the death of the wife of a central Shiite figure of early Islamic history.

Wefaq also said the government destroyed a Shiite mosque in the village of Salmabad, adding to a number of places of worship that have been demolished by security forces in the crackdown.

Last week, Bahrain’s state news agency reported that the government planned to dissolve major Shiite opposition parties, including Wefaq.

However Sheikh Khaled dismissed the news when he said, “We’re not there to dissolve Al-Wefaq (the Islamic National Accord Association). Wefaq committed some violations [for which] there is a court case but there is no witch hunt.”

The human rights group Amnesty International has said that more than 400 activists, almost all Shiites, have so far been detained, including prominent human rights worker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and his two sons-in-law, who were arrested on Saturday.

(Sara Ghasemilee of Al Arabiya can be reached at: sara.ghasemilee@mbc.net)