CAIRO — Saudi Arabia on Monday dispatched at least 1,000 troops to neighboring Bahrain to help quell political unrest there, a move that not only escalated the political crisis in that tiny Arab kingdom but raised the prospect that the wave of internal rebellions sweeping the region could spark international conflict.
The Saudi forces were part of a contingent that included 500 policemen from the United Arab Emirates who responded to a request from the beleaguered Bahraini royal family, which so far has failed to stop a month-old rebellion against the monarchy.
There were no reports of violence involving the Saudi troops or the other forces. Arabic-language news reports said the forces would be deployed to protect oil facilities, banks and utilities.
Opposition activists leading the demonstrations immediately condemned the presence of foreign forces in Bahrain and called the move a provocation that's sure to stoke sectarian tensions.
"We consider any foreign troops entering Bahrain as an occupying force. They have no business in Bahrain," said Ebrahim Sharif, head of Waad, one of the seven main opposition groups. "They're not here to defend our borders. They're here to defend the regime."
The Bahrain government welcomed the troops, however, saying their presence was intended to "protect the safety of citizens, residents and critical infrastructure."
The government's statement said defense treaties allowed members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to intervene in other members' affairs "to deter anyone from violating the security and stability of GCC and or seek to raise discord among citizens."
In addition to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the GCC includes Qatar, Oman and Kuwait.
On Thursday, the GCC called for the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to help topple the regime of Moammar Gadhafi.
It was once unimaginable that Bahrain, a sleepy, sun-drenched kingdom that is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, could become a key battleground in the Middle East's march toward democracy.
In the past 48 hours, however, Bahrain's crisis has deepened, forcing the closure of Bahrain Financial Harbor, the once-bustling waterside commercial complex in the capital, Manama. A general strike crippled government ministries, oil companies and banking institutions. A bloc in parliament called for the king to impose martial law.
By nightfall Monday, state television was airing footage of royals performing tribal war dances. Protesters at the landmark Pearl Square played martial music, set up roadblocks and posted lookouts to signal the arrival of any government forces.
"The top companies and business sectors are now paralyzed, and the oil companies are suffering," said Abdullah Hussein, of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions, a labor collective participating in the uprising. "We're imposing great pressure on the government and we're waiting for the government to start meeting our demands and containing the situation in a civilized way."
Bahrain's revolt began Feb. 14, three days after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned and a month after the president of Tunisia fled his country. On Feb. 18, Bahraini police raided protesters camped in Pearl Square, a traffic circle in the capital, killing five. Since then the capital has seen daily demonstrations with thousands of protesters, many of whom demand the removal of the royal family.
Sectarian divisions have played a major role in the protests. The Bahraini royal family is Sunni Muslim, while the protesters are primarily Shiites, who also make up the majority of Bahrain's population.
The neighboring Saudi government is alarmed at the possibility of more Shiite representation in Bahrain, fearing the shift could embolden Shiites in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province, or strengthen the Shiite clerics who rule the Saudis' archenemy Iran.
Bahraini government loyalists have painted the uprising as the work of Iran-allied Shiites who seek to take over the Gulf and its vast oil reserves. Sunni extremists consider the Shiites second-class citizens at best, heretics at worst.
Sunni and Shiite exchanges grew heated on Facebook and Twitter as news spread of Saudi Arabia's involvement in Bahrain.
Several Sunnis from both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain voiced support for the Gulf forces, urging them to "save the Sunni brothers!" Shiite protesters, meanwhile, insisted their calls for democratic reforms would help all Bahrainis and they pointed to prominent Sunnis among the opposition leaders.
Over the weekend, the GCC leadership said on the group's official website that regional security is "a shared responsibility" and that any destabilizing force in Bahrain would be a "major breach" in security for the whole Gulf.
Hours before the Saudi troops' arrival, opposition activists and government officials had conducted talks to find a peaceful resolution to the month-long demonstrations. After news broke of the GCC reinforcements, protesters camped out in Pearl Square turned angry and said negotiations were off.
"They think that if the revolution succeeds in Manama, it will spread across the Gulf region just like it did across North Africa," said Hassan Ahmed Issa, a protester in Pearl Square. "Other Arabs are becoming more confident that they could also succeed like the Egyptians and Tunisians, and be as willing to fight as the Libyans and the Yemenis."
(McClatchy correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed from Cairo. A Bahraini reporter, who isn't named for security reasons, contributed from Manama.)
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