- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Bahrain’s Shiite Muslim opposition on Wednesday demanded that the Saudi-led military force helping to put down protests leave the country immediately.

The demand underscored the sectarian element of the anti-government movement in the tiny, strategic island kingdom, where majority Shiites are demonstrating for more rights and freedom against a Sunni dynasty that has ruled Bahrain for two centuries.

About 1,500 troops from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni-led Gulf states entered Bahrain two weeks ago at the invitation of Bahrain’s monarch. The king also declared emergency rule and cracked down on protesters, killing at least 20.

A senior Shiite opposition leader, Ali Salman, said the foreign troops must leave because the opposition rejects “any military intervening for any party” in Bahrain. Salman also said Iran shouldn’t interfere.

“We don’t want Bahrain to turn into a conflict zone between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” which has condemned the deployment, Salman said at a news conference in the capital, Manama. “That’s why we object to the Saudi intervention. We call for immediate withdrawal of the troops, and we reject Iranian interference.”

The Gulf Cooperation Council force entered Bahrain earlier this month over the causeway that connects it to Saudi Arabia, with the stated mission of helping keep order.

Shiites around the Middle East protested GCC intervention. Iranian authorities charged the troops were in Bahrain to enforce Sunni monarchy’s oppression of Bahrain’s Shiite majority.

The fate of the kingdom is of particular concern to the United States, which bases its naval forces in Bahrain as a counterweight to Iran’s growing influence in the region.

On Tuesday, Iran’s defense minister, Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, criticized Bahrain’s decision to invite the Saudi led force.

Quoted by Iran’s Press TV, Vahidi stopped short of threatening direct Iranian intervention, but warned that the region would turn into “a center for flare-ups, hostility and clashes” if such “destabilizing and illegal” moves continue.

Bahraini authorities expanded the crackdown on the opposition Wednesday, detaining the tiny Gulf country’s most prominent blogger.

Mahmoud al-Youssef has for years criticized the Bahraini government for curbing freedom of expression, said Amira al-Hussaini, a Middle East and North Africa editor at Global Voices Online.

“He is the godfather of the Bahraini blogging community,” al-Hussaini said of al-Youssef, 50, who has been writing a blog in English. “He’s always called for tolerance and for Bahrainis to behave like one family.”

Al-Youssef’s brother, Jamal, said his brother was taken into custody from his home in Duraz, an opposition stronghold northwest of the capital Manama at 3 a.m.

“They rang the bell and Mahmoud answered the door,” the blogger’s brother said. “They told him they have a warrant for his arrest and took him away.”

Hundreds of opposition activists and leaders have been detained since martial-type laws were introduced two weeks ago.

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