The contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the Sunni-Shiite split in the Arab world were ramped up to a dangerous level Wednesday March 16 by the all-out offensive launched by Bahrain security forces, tanks and helicopters to drive the mostly Shiite protesters out of the main square and key points of the island-state. debkafile's sources report that Bahraini forces dispersed the protesters camped for a month in the Pearl Roundabout main square of Manama, at the capital's downtown and financial district, near the oil refineries and in the Ar Rifa district, home to the royal palaces.
The exact number of casualties is not known. Official sources say three Bahraini police officers and three protesters were killed and hundreds were injured. In an effort to stop the demonstrators regrouping for another assault, the authorities empowered by the three-month emergency declared Tuesday, March 15, imposed a curfew from late afternoon until early morning, banned all street gatherings and warning that violators would be shot. After the streets were cleared, the army moved tanks into the former protest venues.
debkafile's military and Gulf sources say that Bahrain laid the ground for its security crackdown Wednesday with the entry of Saudi, UAE and Kuwait military contingents into the island-kingdom Monday, March 14. Local units were able to focus on dispersing the demonstrators, leaving Saudi troops to secure strategic compounds.
The Bahraini conflict may well escalate further if the protest leaders, predominantly disaffected Shiites, return to the fray:
1. This time, they will not come back with rocks, sticks, petrol bombs and slogans, but armed with the guns provided by Iranian agents which they have kept hidden in their homes.
2. Those Shiite demonstrators will not shrink from shooting not just at Bahraini security forces but also Saudi troops. A warning of this came Tuesday when a Shiite sniper shot dead a Saudi officer. The Saudis tried to keep this incident quiet but they won't be able to do so if casualty figures rise on all sides.
debkafile's Iranian sources say that it will be up to Tehran to decide if the Bahraini Shiites get into direct firefights. That will depend on whether the Iranians are ready to embark on concrete steps to back the protesters and encourage them to take bolder action.
Wednesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad condemned the dispersal of the Shiite protesters as "unjustifiable and irreparable." Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said ominously: “The unexpected interference of foreign forces in popular uprisings in different countries, including Bahrain, whose people are peacefully after their legitimate demands, can lead the region toward a crisis that will have dangerous consequences."
This was a clear threat to the GCC region as a whole for authorizing combined military intervention in Bahrain. Iran could hit back by igniting Bahrain-type disturbances among the Shiites of the eastern Saudi oil regions and of other the Gulf states which sent military units to Bahrain, especially Qatar and the UAE. The spread of unrest from Bahrain to other Gulf emirates would have a major impact not just on their regimes but also on the global oil and financial markets.
Tuesday and Wednesday, Riyadh began transferring large military contingents to the Shiite regions, deploying them in city centers and at oil fields, installations and terminals. Smaller units of extra troops were added to the brigades in Bahrain.
The royal rulers of Saudi Arabia are determined to stay the course, debkafile's Gulf sources reported Wednesday from circles close to the throne. One source said that Saudi King Abdullah was utterly resolved to crush the Shiite revolt in neighboring Bahrain. He sees this mission as the battle to preserve the integrity of his own kingdom.
The king told his close associates that he would spare no effort and use every means to wipe out the threat to the Bahraini regime. Saudi Arabia therefore stands ready for a showdown with Iran over the island kingdom – even at the cost of a regional Sunni-Shiite war in the Persian Gulf.