Bahrain's Shiite leader condemns continued arrests, reversing 10 years of sectarian progress

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Bahrain's top Shiite politician said a crackdown on Shiite protesters by Sunni rulers has destroyed a decade of stable sectarian relations as the tiny Gulf state heads into parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

The wave of detentions — at least 160, according to one lawyer — has spilled over into near daily clashes between the majority Shiites and Sunni-led security forces and fueled concerns of deeper unrest and heavy-handed tactics in the home of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.

Any serious breakdown in Bahrain has possible wider repercussions. The country's two groups mirror the regional tug-of-war between Shiite giant Iran and the mostly Sunni Gulf nations that fear Tehran's efforts to expand its influence.

The tiny island nation of Bahrain is caught in the middle by history and location.

Iranian hard-liners view Bahrain's Shiites as oppressed brethren, and some have even described Bahrain as Iran's "14th province." But Bahrain's ruling Khalifa clan remain close allies to Iran's main regional counterweight, Saudi Arabia, which is linked to Bahrain by a heavily used causeway.

The arrests follow other clampdowns apparently aimed at tightening government control in the media. Recently, authorities have suspended several popular websites that carried citizen journalism and commentary on political affairs, including the popular site of the independent Al Wasat newspaper.

In April, Bahraini officials warned they could file charges against anyone posting news or commentary on mobile phones.

"The way the ongoing security campaign has been handled and the rights violations that accompanied it have in one week destroyed 10 years of progress in this country," said Sheik Ali Salman, the head of Wefaq society, the largest Shiite bloc in Bahrain's parliament at a press conference Saturday.

Shiites make up as much as 70 percent of Bahrain's population, according to a 2008 State Department report.

Salman also accused the government of tarnishing Bahrain's human rights record, and warned violence would not solve the continued problems between the two groups. Several prominent international rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have denounced the recent arrests.

The Shiite Wefaq group holds 17 seats in Bahrain's 40-member lower house of parliament, which was created eight years ago under a new constitution aimed at easing some Shiite complaints of perceived second-class status.

Shiites have complained of discrimination for decades. They say Sunnis get the best government jobs and housing, while Shiites are barred from high posts in the military and security forces and suffer from higher rates of poverty.

A government statement issued Saturday blamed internationally funded insurgents for trying to disrupt national security. It also said the suspects were arrested according to Bahraini anti-terrorism laws.

Lawyer Mohammed al-Tajir estimates that over the past week 160 people have been detained, including 10 high level leaders.

"The number is on the rise from last week and differs from one lawyer to another," he said. "We are having trouble meeting with the detainees and finding out where they are kept."

Bahrain is tiny, with only 530,000 citizens in an island nation smaller than New York City. It lies on a fault line in the standoff dividing the Middle East, where Sunni Arab governments fear any sign of the growing power of Shiite Iran.

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 tensions in Bahrain also reflect a growing unease among Shiites in the Gulf that they are facing increased pressures and scrutiny.

Rasid, a respected Shiite website, has reported several arrests of key Shiite leaders in Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this month a court in Kuwait indicted seven people, including a Kuwaiti soldier and an Iranian woman, on charges of spying for Iran. Tehran denied the charges.