Bahrain's Shiite-dominated opposition begged the international community Monday for prompt action to "protect the people of Bahrain," after a Saudi-led military force entered the small island kingdom to help the Sunni-led government quell escalating protests.
The call came in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon signed by the leaders of seven opposition groups. The message requested an emergency Security Council meeting to discuss the 1,000-strong force, which entered Bahrain on Monday morning via the causeway that links the island to Saudi Arabia — one day after protesters blockaded the financial district in the capital, Manama.
"We consider any entrance of any soldier or army vehicle into the vicinity of the kingdom of Bahrain — whether it's on the ground, by air or by sea — to be an occupation of the country and a conspiracy against the unarmed people of Bahrain," the letter said of the intervention, which came under the aegis of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
On the microblogging website Twitter, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa said the protesters, who first took to the streets on Feb. 14, were deceiving the world.
"What we are witnessing in Manama [Bahrain's capital] is no peaceful protest … . It's wanton, gangster-style takeover of people's lives," he wrote.
He also accused opposition leaders of bad faith, saying that "[f]rom Day One, the goal post of demands kept moving."
The war of words threatened to further inflame the country's long-simmering Sunni-Shiite tensions, as well as the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which sees itself as protector of the region's Shiites.
Jamal Fakhro, first vice chairman of the Shura Council — Bahrain's appointed upper house of parliament — told The Washington Times that he viewed the GCC move as largely symbolic.
"I believe the whole idea behind it is much more of support, rather than the need to be on the ground," he said, arguing that Bahrain had sufficient forces of its own to maintain law and order. "I think it is to show solidarity between the GCC countries — that if anything happens to one country, the other countries will come to support it."
Administration officials have been cautious with their public language on Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
On Monday, White House press secretary Jay Carney urged the GCC to "exercise restraint," but stopped short of condemning the intervention. "This is not an invasion of a country," he said.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and Crown Prince Salman in Manama on Friday and told reporters a day later that he was "convinced that they both are serious about real reform."
The crown prince, whom the king has asked to lead a "national dialogue," says he accepts the principle of "a parliament with full authority" and "fair voting districts."
The principles are two key demands of the opposition, which has long complained that the elected house of parliament lacks real sway and that elections for the 40-member body are tainted by anti-Shiite gerrymandering.
Jasim Hussain, one of 18 opposition lawmakers who withdrew from parliament last month in solidarity with the demonstrators, told The Times that Bahrainis need to elect a "constitutional assembly" to draft a new constitution.
"Lasting solutions will not come under the existing structure," he said.
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