Bahrain security forces storm village of top Shia cleric


 by: Simeon Kerr in Dubai

Security forces stormed the village of Bahrain’s top Shia cleric on Tuesday, vowing to “enforce security and general order” as violence escalates in the Gulf state.

Activists said police backed by armoured vehicles used shotguns and tear gas in the raid on Diraz, home to Sheikh Isa Qassim. There were unconfirmed reports that one person was killed in the operation. Bahrain, which hosts a US naval base, has been plagued by sectarian tensions, with accusations that the Sunni-dominated government discriminates against the Shia majority.

Shia protests have intensified since the 2011 Arab uprisings, and the government has responded by stifling dissent, banning the main Shia opposition group, al-Wefaq, and revoking the nationality of Mr Qassim. A court last week gave the cleric a suspended one-year jail sentence for financing extremism in the Gulf archipelago. Police have surrounded Diraz, which is on the outskirts of Manama, the capital, for months after people began a sit-in around Mr Qassim’s house. When his nationality was revoked last year, he was accused of “serving foreign interests” and promoting “sectarianism and violence”. The cleric denied both charges made against him. The accusations were interpreted as a reference to Iran, which Bahrain accuses of stoking Shia militancy in the Gulf state. Shia activists deny the claims and blame the government, which is supported by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states, for fuelling sectarianism.

The police operation was launched two days after Donald Trump met Bahrain’s King Hamad and pledged to improve relations with the kingdom as the US president rallies a Sunni coalition against Iran. His stance contrasts with that of the Obama administration, which blocked arms sales to Bahrain because of human rights concerns. It also angered Gulf states by signing the nuclear deal with Tehran in 2015.

“Our countries have a wonderful relationship together, but there has been a little strain, but there won’t be strain with this administration,” Mr Trump told King Hamad on his visit Saudi Arabia, where he met Arab leaders. Human rights activists said Mr Trump’s rhetoric against Iran and his strong display of support for Gulf states may have emboldened Bahrain. “The Bahraini security forces’ operation in Diraz, which appears to have already claimed at least one life, looks like a strategic show of strength aimed at ending a peaceful and legitimate protest,” said Nicholas McGeehan of Human Rights Watch. “The timing of this operation — two days after King Hamad’s convivial meeting with President Trump — can hardly be a coincidence.” The Bahraini government said the operation on Diraz was targeting “a meeting ground of fugitives”. It claims that it is challenging a radical minority that is using increasingly violent tactics against the police. An interior ministry statement said 50 fugitives were arrested in the raid on Diraz, some of whom had escaped from prison. It said “several terrorists” used the cleric’s home to try to avoid arrest. Last month, the kingdom reintroduced military trials for civilians who “threaten state security”, reversing one of the reforms it introduced under international pressure in the wake of the 2011 uprising.