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Bahrain's 2-year-old uprising at crossroads

Monday - 2/4/2013, 2:13pm  ET

Bahraini anti-government protesters carry signs and national flags during a march Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, in the western village of Malkiya, Bahrain. Hundreds shouted "down with the government" during the march, called by several opposition groups to demand freedom for political prisoners and democracy in the Gulf island kingdom. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

BRIAN MURPHY
Associated Press

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) -- Young men wearing masks lurk in the darkened alcoves of the old market in Bahrain's capital. "To victory," they whisper as they hand out pamphlets calling for greater rebellion after two years of nonstop unrest in the Gulf kingdom.

In another part of the city, leaders of established Shiite opposition groups study their next moves. One option is to open talks with the Sunni monarchy as a possible soft landing from the Arab Spring's longest-running uprising against a sitting power.

The two faces of Bahrain's tumult have never been clearer as the struggles in the strategic island -- home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet-- mark their second year next week.

The old guard Shiite political factions appear worn down by the ceaseless tensions and seem increasingly open to some kind of face-saving compromise with Bahrain's Sunni leadership. Such negotiations are endorsed by Washington and other Western allies of Bahrain's ruling dynasty.

On Monday, Bahrain's justice minister, Khaled bin Ali Al Khalifa, said preliminary political talks are scheduled to begin Feb. 10 -- just days before the second anniversary of the crisis. The official Bahrain News Agency called it an important step toward "national consensus."

But the clashes and bloodshed also have elevated another voice from Bahrain's streets: A shadowy network of youth groups and hard-line Shiites -- knitted together by social media -- that have coalesced around an angry axis. Calls to bring down the monarchy are now staples in the near daily skirmishes with security forces.

"No to dialogue! No to surrender!" several hundred protesters chanted during a recent confrontation between demonstrators with firebombs and riot police responding with tear gas and stun grenades.

It might seem like a worrisome groundswell for Bahrain's Sunni rulers, who have managed to keep a close grip on power for decades under what critics call a two-tier system. The majority Shiites, about 70 percent of the population, claim they are relegated to the lower rungs with limited say in the country's affairs.

Bahrain's uprising seeks to tilt the scales toward the Shiites. But divides within the Shiite population -- whether to battle harder or open talks -- could end up giving Bahrain's rulers more breathing space. If the main Shiite factions can be brought into negotiations, the opposition left on the streets would continue as an annoyance to the monarchy but less of a potential threat to their power.

"The confrontational elements in Bahrain -- those who have effectively rejected dialogue as pointless -- are certainty taking more charge of the tone on the streets," said Toby Jones, an expert on Bahraini affairs at Rutgers University. "It invites a type of comparison to the 50s and 60s civil rights movement when activists had to be provocative enough to provoke police backlash and brutality and the cycle goes on."

It's not hard to lose track of little Bahrain on the greater Arab Spring stage.

Bahrain's two-year death toll of more than 55 was exceeded in a single day in Syria. There is no clear center of gravity in Bahrain's uprising like Egypt's Tahrir Square. Bahrain's protest hub of Pearl Square was cleared by police raids in the early weeks of the unrest and now is ringed round-the-clock by security forces, razor wire and concrete barricades.

But the tensions on the tiny island -- whose native population of more than 550,000 is equivalent to a Cairo neighborhood -- resonates in many important directions.

The survival of Bahrain's monarchy is a priority of the highest order for the fraternity of other Gulf Arab leaders, who have so far ridden out the Arab Spring and have united to stamp out potential threats. Among the crackdowns: Arrests in Kuwait and Qatar for alleged online dissent and charges against 94 suspected coup plotters in the United Arab Emirates with claimed links to Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Problems in Bahrain also spill over into the Gulf Arab showdowns with Shiite power Iran.

Gulf Arab leaders never miss an opportunity to accuse Iran or its proxies, such as Lebanon's Hezbollah, as being off-site masterminds of Bahrain's unrest. Iranian officials and its state media often portray Bahrain's Shiite protesters as freedom fighters and distant kin. But no clear evidence has emerged to back up claims of direct aid.

Still, the Gulf claims ring powerfully in the West as part of wider fears over Iran's expanding influence.

And that is just part of delicate diplomatic balance for the U.S. in Bahrain.

Washington is unlikely to do anything to sour relations with Bahrain's Western-educated king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, or jeopardize its vital military interests such as the 5th Fleet, the Pentagon's main base to counter Iran's expanding military presence in the Gulf and protect oil shipping lanes through the Gulf of Hormuz.

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