Protests wash over Iran, Bahrain and Yemen, inspired by Arab world unrest
Iran security forces heighten alert in effort to avoid violence of 2009 protests; clashes reported in Bahrain and Yemen.
Demonstrators took to the streets in Iran, Yemen and Bahrain on Monday, inspired by the anti-government revolts that toppled the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt over the last month.
In Iran, the government is taking preventative measures to try and ensure that there will be no repeat of the protests surrounding the 2009 election controversy. Scores of Iranian security forces were on the streets of Tehran to prevent a planned opposition rally, witnesses said.
Iranian authorities refused a request by opposition leaders Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi to stage the rally for fear of a revival of anti-government mass protests that shook the country after a disputed presidential vote in 2009.
Defying the ban, the opposition nevertheless renewed the call for the rally. Iran's authorities have warned the opposition to avoid creating a "security crisis" by reviving mass anti-government protests that erupted after the vote, the biggest unrest in Iran since the 1979 revolution.
"There are dozens of police and security forces in the Vali-ye Asr Avenue ... they have blocked entrances of metro stations in the area," a witness told Reuters by telephone, referring to a large thoroughfare that cuts through Tehran. The site also said both mobile and landline telephone communications with Mousavi's house were cut as well.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia an "Islamic awakening", akin to the 1979 revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed shah.
The opposition, however, saw the uprisings as being more similar to their own protests following the June, 2009 election which they say was rigged in favor of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Revolutionary Guards, fiercely loyal to Khamenei, put down the 2009 protests. Two people were hanged and scores of opposition supporters jailed. The last mass demonstration was held in December of 2009 when eight people were killed.
Mousavi says the freedom movement is alive, but his campaign is fading as many Iranians feel the former prime minister lacks the courage to confront the establishment from which he sprang. Many Iranians critical of the government now seem unwilling to risk violence or arrest with displays of dissent. But the opposition's call has gained momentum on social networking websites, with more than 56,000 people pledging to participate on one protest group's Facebook page.
Large protests in Bahrain turn violent
Small-scale clashes erupted in two Bahraini villages as security forces tightened their grip on Shi'ite communities for Monday's "Day of Rage" protests. Helicopters circled over the capital Manama, where protesters were expected to gather in the afternoon, and police cars stepped up their presence in Shi'ite villages, breaking up one protest with teargas and rubber bullets.
At least 14 people were injured in clashes overnight and on Monday. Bahrain, where a Sunni family rules over a Shi'ite majority, has offered cash payouts in the run-up to the protest to prevent Shi'ite discontent from bubbling over as popular revolts spread in the Arab world.
"We call on all Bahraini people -- men, women, boys and girls -- to share in our rallies in a peaceful and civilized way to guarantee a stable and promising future for ourselves and our children," Bahraini activists said in a statement issued on Twitter.
"We would like to stress that Feb. 14 is only the beginning. The road may be long and the rallies may continue for days and weeks, but if a people one day chooses life, then destiny will respond."
Diplomats say Bahrain's demonstrations, organized on the social media websites Facebook and Twitter, will be a gauge of whether a larger base of Shi'ites can be drawn on to the streets. The big test will be if demonstrations take hold in Manama, where demonstrations are rare.
Big protests in the Gulf Arab island state could embolden other marginalized Shi'ites in nearby Saudi Arabia, political analysts say.
There was no immediate comment from Bahraini authorities.
Police clashed late on Sunday with residents in the Bahraini village of Karzakan, where security forces regularly skirmish with Shi'ite youths, and one protester was injured, witnesses said. Police said three officers were hurt.
In the village of Nuweidrat, police used teargas and rubber bullets on Monday to disperse a crowd demanding the release of Shi'ite detainees, witnesses said, adding that 10 people were slightly injured.
"There were 2,000 sitting in the street voicing their demands when police started firing," 24-year-old Kamel told Reuters, declining to give his full name. Nearby, streets were littered with teargas canisters and rubber bullets.
The scene was different in Manama, where government supporters honked car horns and waved Bahraini flags to celebrate the 10th anniversary of a national charter introduced after unrest in the 1990s. Many Shi'ites believe they still do not have enough say in the country's affairs.
Bahrain is a small oil-producing country whose Shi'ite population has long complained of discrimination by the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family, well before popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt emboldened activists throughout the region. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, trying to defuse the tension, said he would give 1,000 dinars (2,650 U.S. dollars) to each local family, and the government has indicated that it may free minors arrested under a security crackdown last year.
Non-OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) Bahrain, which unlike its Gulf Arab peers has little spare cash to use for social problems, said last week it would spend an extra 417 million dollars on social items, including food subsidies, reversing its attempts to prepare the public for cuts in subsidies.
Weeks-old Yemen protests winning major concessions
Hundreds of anti-government demonstrators clashed with supporters of Yemen's president on Monday south of the capital, with both sides hurling rocks as protests escalated in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state.
Witnesses said police had fired shots into the air but were unable to control the crowds in the industrial town of Taiz, while in Sanaa protesters inspired by an uprising in Egypt vowed to march to police intelligence headquarters.
"Hey Ali, get out, get out," anti-government protesters shouted at Sanaa University, referring to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a U.S. ally against Al-Qaida's resurgent Yemen-based wing.
"There is no solution except to leave." Police stood between around 500 anti-government protesters and a rival group of around 100 supporters of Saleh at Sanaa University, a frequent launchpad for demonstrations, to prevent skirmishes.
Anti-government protests gained momentum in recent weeks, sometimes drawing tens of thousands of people, and the threat of further turmoil prompted Saleh to offer significant concessions, including a pledge to step down in 2013.
The protests have turned to clashes in the last four days, with rival groups beating each other with batons and fists. On Sunday, police forcibly broke up a march in the capital. But analysts say Yemen is not yet at the point of an Egypt-style revolt, and any upheaval would likely unfold more slowly and perhaps with more bloodshed, in a heavily armed country where tribal allegiances run strong.
Protesters in Sanaa said they were demanding the release of activists arrested over four straight days of rallies, including around 220 held in Taiz, whom the opposition said had already been freed.
Saleh, who has ruled fractious Yemen for 32 years, postponed a visit to Washington on Sunday due to conditions in the region, according to a state news agency. Human Rights Watch criticised police for what they described as unnecessary brutality that included using electroshock tasers against demonstrators.
"Without provocation, government security forces brutally beat and tasered peaceful demonstrators on the streets of Sanaa," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director of the U.S.-based rights group.
Although pro- and anti-government protesters have clashed in recent days, police had generally stayed out of the fray in Sanaa, but crackdowns have been stronger outside the capital.
Yemen is struggling to quell separatist rebellion in the south and cement a truce with Shi'ite insurgents in the north at the same time it is fighting a resurgent wing of Al-Qaida based in Yemen.