DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, (AP) – The tiny Gulf nation of Bahrain has been jolted in recent months by what amounts to a running family feud: Sunni rulers ordering arrests and clampdowns against Shiite protesters who claim they are denied jobs and opportunities.
The tensions focused attention on parliamentary elections Saturday and the nation’s strategic pro-Western role — host of America’s military powerhouse in the Gulf, the U.S. 5th Fleet.
But the country has also become a test case for some of the region’s key stress points: Iran’s rising ambitions and how much to press ahead with democratic openings.
Bahrain’s leaders, to varying degrees, perceive the unrest as a possible foothold for Shiite heavyweight Iran to expand its influence — a fear that binds Sunni rulers from Kuwait City from Abu Dhabi. Bahrain, however, is the only Gulf state with a majority Shiite population.
The showdowns since August also could rattle Bahrain’s commitment to its decade-old experiments in democracy that are closely watched by ruling sheiks and royal courts across the Gulf.
“The political stability in Bahrain is at the forefront for the Gulf,” said Mustafa Alani, a political and security analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. “No one wants to see a change in the order.”
Bahrain’s crackdown on Shiites puts the West — and particularly Washington — in a tight spot politically.
U.S. officials have been careful not to come down too hard on Bahrain’s leaders for their heavy hand against the demonstrators. It’s seen as both an acknowledgment of deep strategic ties and a tacit nod to the idea that Bahrain is standing its ground against Iran.
Bahrainis will begin selecting the 40-member parliament, which has some policymaking roles. But it is still answerable to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who began to open Bahrain’s clan-based political system after taking power in 1999. He later introduced parliamentary elections that created one of few elected legislative bodies in the region.
It’s still unclear how the Shiites will respond at the polls. Some Shiite leaders have urged for a boycott to protest the government’s recent blows. Others, however, feel its a chance for political payback by claiming control of the chamber, where Shiite parties now have 17 seats.
This would give them a high-profile soapbox for their complaints. They are led by claims that Shiites are blackballed from prime government posts and key roles in security forces even though they represent about 70 percent of the nation’s 725,000 native population.
The Justice Ministry’s top election overseer, Abdulla Al Buainain, said more than 290 Bahraini election observers will be used and webcams will monitor each polling station.
“We can confidently assert that the elections will be free, fair and transparent,” he said.
But the voting will take place with the ruling powers showing few hints of concessions.
Trials are scheduled to begin Oct. 28 — just five days after the voting — for 23 suspected Shiite dissidents accused of serious charges including terrorism conspiracy and trying to overthrow the state. Members of the group could face life sentences if convicted.
They are among more than 250 people reportedly rounded up since August. The clashes have included Shiite youths setting barricades of burning tires and quieter defiance such as unfurling protest banners in busy shopping malls — which is still a powerful act in a region where Western-style demonstrations are rare.
Bahrain’s leaders also have hit back with other pinpoint strikes on possible forums of dissent.
Last month, Bahrain suspended the board of the Bahrain Human Rights Society and sharply tightened controls on Shiite mosques and religious leaders, including stripping the citizenship of a prominent cleric with deep ties to the Shiite power centers in Iraq and Iran.
It all suggests a ruling system desperate to stifle internal challenges before they can gather greater momentum. And there’s no bigger motivator for Bahrain’s minority Sunnis than the suspicion that Iran could be pulling the strings.
There is no clear evidence to back up claims of Iranian ties to Shiite activists in Bahrain, where Sunni-Shiite tensions have flared sporadically for decades. But the current worries about Iran’s expanding clout has many Sunni leaders increasingly on edge.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon last week — and his hero’s welcome by the Shiite faction Hezbollah — only serves to reinforce Gulf views about Iran’s ambitions.
“Many people are skeptical that Iran is really involved directly in Bahrain,” said Toby Jones, an expert on Sunni-Shiite relations at Rutgers University. “But it’s a convenient instrument for Bahrain’s leaders to wage a campaign against what they see as threats. All this regional anxiety enables a sterner domestic political line.”
Some hard-line Iranian groups have called Bahrain the “14th province” of the Islamic republic. Just over the causeway from Bahrain, leaders in Saudi Arabia are awaiting U.S. approval for a mammoth military purchase of air power and other weapons that is seen as a direct response to Iran’s arms buildup.
“By claiming there was a foreign-backed terrorist coup plot, (Bahrain) has managed to further distance the Sunnis from the Shiites by invoking fears of the Iranian boogeyman,” said Fahad Desmukh, a writer on Bahrain affairs based in Pakistan.
Ironically, Bahrain has followed some of the tactics used in Iran’s clampdown on the opposition, including trying to silence bloggers and some social media sites. Earlier this month, Britain appealed for Bahrain to open its prisons to special U.N. envoys to investigate claims of abuse and arbitrary detention.
In the last parliament election in 2006, Sunni groups took a majority of seats with hard-line religious factions emerging as a powerful bloc. The outcome was marred by accusations of vote-rigging for pro-government candidates.
Shiites leaders also have complained that electoral districts have been gerrymandered to undercut the Shiite’s population advantage.