Opposition activists in Bahrain have rallied to protest a proposed union with neighboring Saudi Arabia. Some protesters view the plan as an attempt by Riyadh to end the uprising in the Gulf island nation.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Bahrain on Friday, denouncing proposals for closer military and political cooperation with neighboring Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
The mainly Shiite demonstrators blocked one of the island nation's major highways outside the capital, Manama, in a rally that stretched for nearly five kilometers (three miles). The demonstrators chanted slogans such as "No, no unity" and "Bahrain is not for sale."
On Monday, the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council met for a summit meeting in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, to disclose closer union between the organization's six member states. The council is comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The meeting postponed any decisions on closer political integration for later in the year. Some critics believe the proposal is a push by Saudi Arabia's Sunni monarchy to consolidate its regional power against its main rival, Shiite Iran.
Regional power politics
Bahrain, a small island state in the Persian Gulf, plays an important strategic role in the region: it is home to the US Navy's fifth fleet. Once a province of Iran, a Sunni monarchy currently rules over the majority Shiite population.
In February 2011, mainly Shiite activists - inspired by the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt - rose up against the Al Khalifa monarchy, calling for greater political participation. At least 50 people have died in the unrest so far. The monarchy blames the unrest on Iran.
Saudi Arabia, which has a large Shiite population in its eastern, oil-producing regions, deployed troops last year to help shore up the Al Khalifa family. Some opposition activists suspect that Riyadh wants to use the GCC proposal to secure control over Bahrain and deny Tehran influence in the region.
Protests against a Saudi-Bahraini union also took place in Iran on Friday, with the cleric Kazem Sediqi delivering a sermon broadcast live on state radio.
"This is an ill-fated plot that is taking place with the American and Zionist (Israeli) green light but they should know that the people of Bahrain and the region, Muslims around the world and in Iran will never tolerate it," Sediqi said.
"Instead of surrendering to its own people, it (the Bahraini government) is surrendering its identity, with total abjectness, to another country," Sediqi said.
slk/jm (AP, Reuters)