Antiwar Bahrainis Stage a Rare Protest

Times Staff Writer

Belying their government's pro-U.S. stance, thousands of Bahrainis demanded Friday that American forces leave this island and that Washington abandon its course toward war in Iraq.

The roughly 4,000 marchers who burned U.S. flags and flung epithets at President Bush were few compared with the millions who took part in recent antiwar rallies around the world. But here in the tiniest of Persian Gulf kingdoms, the outpouring of opposition to playing host to U.S. Navy forces signaled a widening rift between the king and his subjects, who are trying to find their political voices.

"Almost all Bahrainis are against having U.S. forces here, but we can't do anything except demonstrate," said Mahmoud Muslim, a 23-year-old accounting student who joined the procession from the Shiite Muslim Al Rummana mosque to the United Nations office. "We aren't against the American people, just against the presence of U.S. soldiers and the threat of launching a war from here."

Claiming to represent the majority, marchers like Marwa Yousif Saleh, who works for accounting giant Ernst & Young in Manama, the capital, conceded that their protest was unlikely to sway Sheik Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa, whose dynasty has been allied with the United States for half a century.

"This is just propaganda for our views. It's a message to the world that Bahraini people feel the same as everyone else, that war is the wrong move and will only hurt innocent Iraqi people," Saleh said.

Although the antiwar demonstration here drew only a fraction of the crowds who have taken to the streets of London, Berlin, New York and other major cities, it represented a significant strain of dissent in this country of about 700,000 inhabitants, more than a third of whom are foreigners. Not since a wave of pro-democracy riots in Shiite-dominated villages during the mid-1990s have so many Bahrainis taken issue with the official government line.

Meanwhile Friday, across the Arabian Peninsula in Sana, the capital of Yemen, more than 7,000 protesters marched in a similar demonstration against the threat of war, chanting "Death to America!" and warning that all of Islam would come to the aid of Iraq.

The Bahraini protesters carried banners proclaiming "No Blood for Oil" and demanding justice for Palestinians. Other placards denounced Bush as a baby killer and depicted him with satanic horns or superimposed his face against a skull and crossbones.

At least a quarter of the protesters were young Bahraini women, most cloaked in the shroudlike black abayas that are still the norm here despite reforms two years ago that introduced a new constitution and gave women the right to vote.

"We can say something now. We can put our thoughts into words and actions," said 18-year-old Walaa Aali, an information technology student who stood out in slacks and a sweater amid the black-clad women bringing up the rear of the march.

Organizers from the Solidarity Committee With the Iraqi People said their protest was mostly symbolic.

"At the zero hour, the Bahraini government will support America 100%," said Jassim Ridha, whose Wefaq political movement is the largest among seven opposition groups challenging the official line.

Still, he added, the revolt against the threat of a U.S.-led war appears to be affecting the king's relations with Washington. Bahrain, like other Islamic states in the gulf region, has campaigned for U.N. Security Council approval of any Iraqi engagement and declined to take part in any offensive measures.

The leadership and the protesters tend to agree that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein should be ousted to make way for a more democratic and responsive government. But both sides advocate a peaceful transition and favor a new government run by Iraqis rather than one imposed during a U.S. occupation.

As headquarters for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet -- regional command center for at least three of the five aircraft carrier groups now within striking range of Iraq -- Bahrain depends on the U.S. military presence for much of its own defense. Last month, the country began deploying U.S.-supplied Patriot missiles to protect against possible attacks from Baghdad.

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