- Associated Press - Monday, April 18, 2011

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates | Gulf troops will stay indefinitely in Bahrain as a counter to perceived threats from Iran, which the island kingdom’s Sunni rulers have used as a reason for their harsh crackdown on the country’s Shiite opposition.

Bahrain’s king declared martial law last month and invited about 1,500 troops from Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states to help contain a Shiite uprising that Sunni leaders around the oil-rich region believe could open the way for greater influence by Shiite powerhouse Iran.

Tehran has no history of political ties to Bahrain’s Shiites, but it has denounced the Saudi-led troop deployment and condemned the crackdown.

Bahrain’s opposition leaders repeatedly have denied Iran’s role in a wave of demonstrations and sit-ins by the Gulf country’s Shiite majority demanding greater political freedoms and equal rights.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa told reporters on Monday that Iran is a real threat and the Gulf force is needed to counter Tehran’s “sustained campaign” in Bahrain, the host of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

“There is an external threat on the whole Gulf,” the minister said on the sidelines of an anti-piracy conference in Dubai.

He denied the Gulf force is “policing” Bahrain and emphasized the foreign forces’ stated mission is to protect the nation’s “vital installations against a foreign threat.”

Hundreds of protesters, opposition leaders and human rights activists have been taken into custody since Bahrain declared emergency rule March 15 in attempts to crush the revolt.

Bahrain’s state news agency said Monday seven detained opposition supporters will go on trial before a military court for the killing of two policemen.

The report by the Bahrain News Agency said a military prosecutor charged the seven with premeditated murder on Sunday. They also face “other charges,” the report said. It did not elaborate, except to say the two policemen died after being run over by a car in the capital Manama.

Another hearing in the case is set for Tuesday.

The seven are the first of the hundreds taken into custody to be charged with a crime since Bahrain’s military stormed the protesters’ encampment in Manama’s Pearl Square a month ago.

Earlier this month, the authorities banned media from covering legal proceedings in the country’s military courts. Bahrain’s human rights organizations blasted the gag order, saying that trials behind closed doors have no legal credibility.

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