Explosion damages cars in first such attack since Bahrain began crackdown on Shiite dissidents

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Assailants targeting security officials in Bahrain set off an explosion Tuesday that damaged several parked cars in the first such attack since the country's Sunni-led rulers began a crackdown on suspected Shiite dissidents last month.

The explosion in a residential quarter south of the capital did not cause any casualties, but it marked an escalation in a long-running showdown that entered a new phase with a roundup of Shiite activists that began on Aug. 13.

Shiites, who are a majority in the Persian Gulf island nation, have long complained of discrimination in state jobs and housing and claim they are barred from influential posts in the security forces. With the new arrest sweeps, the U.S.-allied Sunni rulers have cast members of the Shiite community as coup plotters.

Until Tuesday's attack, backlash over the crackdown was limited to clashes between Shiite demonstrators and police on opposite sides of barricades of burning tires.

The blast struck four vehicles parked at a home belonging to security personnel working for the Interior Ministry in a mixed Sunni-Shiite area south of the capital, Manama, said security chief Maj. Gen. Tariq Mubarak Bin Dinah. Neighbors in Hamed Town reported hearing a loud explosion.

Bin Dinah said authorities were searching for those behind what he called a "terrorist act."

He gave no details on the device that caused the blast or who is suspected of being behind the attack.

More than 250 Shiites have been detained since last month, and 23 political activists and others have been accused of plotting to overthrow the government.

In the latest arrest, security forces detained the son of the leader of the Haq movement on Monday night. The Shiite opposition group's leader is in London for cancer treatment, and Bahrain has demanded that the British government expel him and another Shiite figure based there.

The two are among the top leaders of the group of 23 Bahraini activists accused earlier this month of forming a terrorist network to topple the government.

Rights groups have demanded investigations into claims of abuses among those detained since mid-August.

Bahrain, a stalwart Western ally, is home port for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. The country scheduled to hold parliamentary elections next month.

Adding to the tension are fears that Shiite Iran could exploit the unrest to increase its influence on the predominantly Sunni Arab side of the Persian 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.

Arab nations around the Gulf harbor 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.

Bahrain's Shiites say they have nothing to do with Iran and are only seeking equality in a country where they are the majority.