Turkey steps up diplomacy to contain Bahrain crisis

Protesters take part in a demonstration in support of Shiite demonstrators in Bahrain and denounce the intervention by Saudi troops in front of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Ankara. The signs say, “The will of the people is stronger than dictatorship” (L) and “The al-Khalifa and al-Saud [families] are batons in the hand of Israel.”

March 18, 2011, Friday/ 17:48:00

Turkey has intensified contacts with authorities in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Iran to help contain a crisis that was sparked by Shiite protests against the Sunni-led government and grew when troops from Bahrain's Gulf allies, led by Saudi Arabia, began arriving earlier this week to bolster the country's efforts to restore security.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has discussed the situation with foreign ministers of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain several times on the phone over the past few days. He also had a phone conversation with Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Thursday. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal was due to meet with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu later on Thursday during a visit to Ankara.

“The Kingdom of Bahrain has expressed its readiness to take steps in the direction of economic and political reform, in addition to its call for dialogue.

We consider it an unfortunate development that any constructive dialogue between the parties has not begun yet and that the tension has escalated despite all this,” the Foreign Ministry statement, released ahead of the Saudi minister’s talks, read.

It also said the arrival of Gulf troops was a result of a sovereign decision made by Bahraini authorities, as part of Bahrain’s alliance with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but said this move further increased the sensitivity of the situation in Bahrain. “It is extremely worrying that violence between protesters and security forces increased in the aftermath of this deployment,” the statement said.

It also called on all parties to refrain from violence and repeated the Turkish stance that the governments in the Middle East should respond to their peoples’ demands for democracy and reforms. “It is also important that the peoples not resort to violence while voicing their demands,” it said, calling on the opposition groups to respond to “good-intentioned initiatives for reform and dialog.”

Foreign Ministry officials said Turkey has advised all parties to refrain from steps that would escalate the tension when Davutoğlu talked to Saudi, Iranian and Bahraini officials this week.

Turkey has backed a wave of anti-government protests in the Arab world, which already resulted in the toppling of long-time presidents in Egypt and Tunisia. But Ankara is deeply concerned over prospects that the protests could spark Sunni-Shiite tensions across the Middle East. Turkish officials are concerned that anti-riot Saudi and United Arab Emirates forces deployed in Bahrain could fuel Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence in the Mideast. About 1,000 Saudi soldiers entered Bahrain on Monday as part of an effort by the six-nation GCC to help the government cope with the protests.

Prime Minister Erdoğan, referring to violence in Bahrain, said in a speech earlier this week that Turkey did not want “new Karbalas,” referring to a battle between supporters and relatives of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husain ibn Ali on the one side and a military detachment from the forces of Yazid I, the Umayyad caliph, in 680. The tragic battle is commemorated during an annual 10-day period held every Muharram by the Shiites as well as many Sunnis. Although Erdoğan’s remarks have been interpreted as a sign of support for the Shiite protesters, Ankara is careful in emphasizing that it treats Sunni and Shiite groups equally.

In Ankara, dozens of Turkish protesters demonstrated against Saudi Arabia for its military intervention in Bahrain outside the Saudi Embassy in Ankara. “Game over,” read one of the placards carried by protesters. “Fascism will lose, peoples will win,” read another one.

As tensions grew, Iran complained to the United Nations about Bahrain’s crackdown on Shiite protesters and asked regional countries to join it to urge Saudi Arabia to withdraw troops from the island state.

The main Shiite power in a region dominated by Sunni Muslim rulers, Iran has said the Bahrain crisis, where at least six people died in clashes on Wednesday, could lead to wider conflict. In a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, also addressed to the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Saudi Arabia had used Bahrain’s call for military support from its neighbors as a “pretext for intervention.”

The United States has also said Bahrain was on the “wrong track” in trying to crush Shiite protests in the Sunni-ruled island, rare criticism that highlighted concern the crackdown could ignite a wider regional conflict.

Earlier this week, Washington said it understood why Bahrain’s Sunni rulers had called in reinforcements. On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said force was not the answer. “We find what’s happening in Bahrain alarming. We think that there is no security answer to the aspirations and demands of the demonstrators,” she told CBS. “They are on the wrong track.”

US President Barack Obama called the kings of Saudi Arabia, a strategic ally of Washington in the Middle East, and of Bahrain, home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and seen as a bulwark against Iranian influence, to urge “maximum” restraint.

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