DUBAI: Bahrain’s security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse anti-government protesters Monday in advance of plans to stage major rallies and bring the Arab reform wave to the Gulf for the first time, witnesses said.
It was the second reported skirmish with protesters since Sunday amid sharply rising tensions in the tiny island kingdom — a strategic Western ally and home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet.
Social media sites have been flooded with calls by an array of political youth groups, rights activists and others to join demonstrations later Monday, a symbolic day in Bahrain as the anniversary of the country’s 2002 constitution that brought pro-democracy reforms such as an elected parliament.
But opposition groups seek deeper changes from the country’s ruling dynasty, including transferring more decision-making powers to the parliament and breaking the monarchy’s grip on senior government posts.
Bahrain’s majority Shiites — about 70 percent of the population — have long complained of systemic discrimination by the Sunni rulers.
The nation — no bigger in area than New York City — is among the most politically volatile in the Gulf. A crackdown on perceived dissidents last year touched off riots and street battles in Shiite areas.
Witnesses Monday said riot police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse marchers in the mostly Shiite village of Newidrat in the southwest region. At least several people were injured, said witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of worries of reprisals from authorities.
On Sunday, security units and protesters clashed in the Shiite village of Karzakan in western Bahrain, injuring several demonstrators and police.
In the capital Manama, security forces were on high alert in anticipation of possible protest crowds streaming toward main crossroads in a plan designed to echo the uprising centered on Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Bahrain’s leaders have responded to the "Day of Rage" calls with concessions aimed at appeasing the protesters.
Government regulators have promised to ease state controls on the media. Last week, Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, granted each Bahraini family the equivalent of nearly $2,700. Bahrain lacks the energy riches of most other Gulf nations and cannot afford to match the generous social programs common in the region.
In an open letter to the king, the independent Bahrain Center for Human Rights set high demands for reforms and warned that attempts to crush protests could push the country into "chaos and bloodshed." The list includes dismantling the security forces, prosecution of state officials for abuses and the release of 450 jailed activists, religious leaders and others.
Bahrain’s Sunni leaders point to parliamentary elections as a symbol of political openness. The 40-seat chamber — one of the few popularly elected bodies in the Gulf — has 18 opposition lawmakers.
But many Sunnis in Bahrain also are highly suspicious of Shiite activists, claiming they seek to undermine the state and have cultural bonds with Shiite heavyweight Iran. An ongoing trial in Bahrain accuses 25 Shiites of plotting against the country’s leadership.
In Kuwait, opposition groups had called for anti-government protests last week, but shifted the date to March 8 after the resignation of the country’s scandal-tainted interior minister.