- - Sunday, February 13, 2011

SANAA, Yemen | Yemeni police armed with sticks and daggers beat back thousands of protesters marching through the capital Sunday in a third straight day of demonstrations calling for political reforms and the resignation of the country’s U.S.-allied president.

The protests have mushroomed since crowds gathered Friday to celebrate the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after an 18-day revolt fueled by similar grievances. Yemen is one of several countries in the Middle East feeling the aftershocks as pro-reform demonstrators take inspiration from the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

In Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, Bahrain’s security forces set up checkpoints and fanned out on patrols Sunday as opposition groups blanketed social media sites with calls to stage the first major anti-government protests in the Gulf since the uprising in Egypt.

The wide-ranging clampdown appeared directed toward Bahrain’s Shiite majority - which had led the drive for Monday’s rallies - and reflected the increasing worries of the Sunni rulers who already have doled out cash and promised greater media reforms in an effort to quell the protest fervor.

A prominent human rights activist predicted “chaos and bloodshed” in Bahrain if attempts are made to crush the planned demonstrations.

The tiny kingdom of Bahrain is among the most politically volatile in the Gulf and holds important strategic value for the West. Bahrain’s Shiites - accounting for nearly 70 percent of the population - have long complained of systematic discrimination by the ruling Sunni dynasty, whose crackdown on dissent last year touched off riots and clashes.

Shiite-led opposition groups and others have joined calls for the demonstrations on a symbolic day - the anniversary of Bahrain’s 2002 constitution that brought some pro-democracy reforms such as an elected parliament.

In Yemen, meanwhile, uniformed police on Sunday used truncheons to stop protesters, many of them university students, from reaching the capital’s central Hada Square. Witnesses said plainclothes police wielding daggers and sticks also joined security forces in driving back the protesters.

Much is at stake in Yemen - already a deeply troubled nation - if the pressure on President Ali Abdullah Saleh further erodes stability.

The U.S. is most worried about an al Qaeda offshoot that has taken root in Yemen’s mountains in the past few years and used the haven as a base to plot attacks beyond the country’s borders, including the failed attempt to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner in December 2009 by an attacker with a bomb sewn into his underwear.

Mr. Saleh - in power for three decades - is quietly cooperating with the U.S. in efforts to battle the al Qaeda franchise, but his government exercises limited control in the tribal areas beyond the capital. The U.S. is funneling him military aid and training.

The country’s security forces, however, already are stretched thin on two other fronts. Since 2004, they have struggled to contain a serious rebellion in the north by members of the Zaidi sect of Shiite Islam who complain of neglect and discrimination. At the same time, police and army forces are clashing with a secessionist movement in southern Yemen, which was a separate country until 1990.

Now, the protests calling for the president’s ouster over corruption allegations and other complaints are adding another serious challenge to the list.



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