DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – 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 monitoring of “religious forums” – an apparent reference to Shiite clerics and others who seek to challenge the Sunni-led system.
A day earlier, state media released the photographs of 23 Shiites – ranging from opposition figures to 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.
Rights groups say more than 250 Shiites have been detained. The backlash spilled onto the streets with Shiite gangs and police clashing.
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 5th Fleet.
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.