DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — What began last month with the arrest of an opposition leader in Bahrain has mushroomed into a full-blown political offensive in the tiny Gulf nation with big fault lines: U.S.-allied Sunni rulers against members of a Shiite majority being cast as coup plotters who could open the door to Iranian influence.
On Sunday, Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa gave a national address to decry "strife, aggression and terrorism" and announce plans for greater government monitoring of "religious forums" — an apparent reference to Shiite clerics and others who seek to challenge the Sunni-led system.
"We hope and expect that everyone will stand firm to protect this nation from strife and evils in the face of violence and terrorism in all its forms," he said.
A day earlier, state media released the photographs of 23 Shiites — ranging from opposition figures to professors and taxi drivers — accused of conspiring to overthrow the government. They include opposition leader Abdul-Jalil al-Singace, whose arrest on Aug. 13 marked the first salvo by officials.
Since then, Bahrain's leaders have steadily ramped up the pressure and rhetoric.
Rights groups say more than 250 Shiites have been detained. The backlash spilled onto the streets with Shiite gangs and police clashing on opposite sides of barricades of burning tires.
Then on Saturday, officials took their strongest swipe yet — portraying the 23 detained Shiite activists as part of a plot to overthrow the ruling system in a stalwart Western ally and home port for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.
"This sophisticated terrorist network with operations inside and outside Bahrain has undertaken and planned a systematic and layered campaign of violence and subversion aimed squarely at undermining the national security of Bahrain," said a statement by public prosecution official Abdul-Rahman al-Sayed after the arrests were announced Saturday.
No details of the alleged coup plot have been made public. But the tough line raises questions about whether officials could clamp down even harder during the approach to Oct. 23 elections for parliament, where Shiites currently have 17 of the 40 seats and could make a bid for a majority in the upcoming balloting.
Shiites have long complained of discrimination in state jobs and housing and claim they are barred from influential posts in the security forces.
But the deeper repercussions touch on Bahrain's commitment to press ahead with its democratic reforms in a region still dominated by tribal dynasties. The confrontation also showcases Bahrain's role as the centerpiece for Gulf concerns about Shiite Iran.
Every Gulf nation harbors suspicions about Iran's effort to expand its regional clout. Yet only Bahrain has a Shiite majority — nearly 70 percent — that is seen as a possible beachhead for Iran on the Arab side of the Gulf.
Hard-liners in Iran have often echoed the complaints by Bahraini Shiites about discrimination and perceived second-class status and have sometimes described Bahrain as Iran's "14th Province." But no clear evidence has emerged of Iranian aid to the Shiite opposition groups in Bahrain, and Bahrain's leadership issued a statement last week distancing itself from any accusations toward Iran.
Still, that doesn't lessen the anxiety by the Sunni rulers, analysts say.
"Part of all this is definitely fear of the Iranian threat," said Shadi Hamid, a Gulf affairs researcher at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. "There is more and more concern about Iranian influence even if it can be proven or not."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a short visit Sunday to Qatar, the only Gulf state that has welcomed him since Iran's disputed presidential election last year. At a news conference with Qatar's leader, Ahmadinejad said they agreed on the need for reconciliation and cooperation between Iran and its neighbors, but Bahrain's unrest was not specifically mentioned.
Bahrain — about 530,000 nationals on an island smaller than New York City — was once an international business hub for the Gulf, but that role has been mostly eclipsed by Dubai and Qatar's capital, Doha, in the past decade. Instead, Bahrain has banked on its strategic role as the center for U.S. Naval operations in the region.
At the same time, Bahrain has experimented with a Gulf brand of democracy: It has an elected parliament, but the sheikdom's rulers still set key policies and keep a Sunni stamp on important levers of power such as the security forces.
"The scope of these crackdowns is particularly frightening because it could dramatically roll back years of reform and Bahrain's claim that it is an emerging democratic country," said analyst Hamid.
Rights groups have demanded investigations into claims of abuses among those detained since mid-August. Media advocates, meanwhile, have denounced the closure of some independent Bahraini websites and a gag order for local media on reporting about the arrests.
The blocked sites include podcasts of the independent Al-Wasat newspaper and the web page of the Wefaq society, the largest Shiite bloc in Bahrain's parliament. Last month, the Wefaq leader, Sheik Ali Salman, said the crackdown has "destroyed 10 years of progress" in Sunni-Shiite relations in Bahrain after the last sectarian unrest in the 1990s.
Bahrain's Shiites say they have nothing to do with Iran and are only seeking equality in a country where they are the majority. But their demands are seen by many Sunnis as a stalking horse for Tehran's regional ambitions.
"The government in Bahrain likes to play the Iran card," said J.E. Peterson, a Gulf affairs scholar affiliated with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona.
But he believes Bahrain's rulers are more interested in preserving their own political survival and privileges as Shiite activists gain more confidence.
"I think they are trying to send a message to the Shiites on the streets," he said, "And that message is: Be careful."