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Bahraini Official Defends Crackdown on Protesters

A month of demonstrations that began in mid-February drew worldwide attention to the small Persian Gulf island nation of Bahrain, one of a series of Arab countries to be swept up in a wave of protest movements.

The demonstrations, which followed widespread uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, were fueled by the Shia majority’s discontent with the Sunni royal dynasty of the Al-Khalifa family.

The protesters, initially calling for economic and democratic reforms, ultimately demanded the royal family give up power.

In mid-March, the government called in troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to help quell the unrest, which was centered around the Pearl Square monument in the nation’s capital, Manama.

The U.S., which bases the Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain, called on both sides to exercise restraint and has urged dialogue and reforms.

Margaret Warner spoke to Shaikh Abdulaziz Al-Khalifa, international media adviser, Information Affairs Authority and former Bahraini ambassador to Great Britain, about where Bahrain stands now. He said the government, after a decade of reform moves by the king, did not anticipate protests of that scale in Bahrain.

“We had seen events in Tunisia and in Egypt, and we felt that maybe there were elements who were going to call for these reforms, but there’s no way that we thought we’d be where we are today,” said Al-Khalifa.

He said the government called in foreign troops to help after the protests reached an unmanageable scale, despite Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa’s offer for dialogue.

“We were outstretched and the protesters no longer contained themselves to the roundabout that they were in,” he said, referring to Pearl Square. “There was just total anarchy and this was unacceptable to the rest of the people living in Bahrain.”

Al-Khalifa defended the detention of opposition members and other activists, and the use of martial law: “I think that people that were engaged firsthand in vandalizing and causing destruction and taking over some of the social institutes are going to be punished.” He promised that those not implicated in violence would be quickly released.

Al-Khalifa also maintained that Iran was fomenting the protests despite Defense Secretary Robert Gates saying the U.S. had seen no evidence of that. “The one thing that we can assure you that speeches by Hezbollah and elements of the government in Iran and their TV channels and their religious clerics haven’t helped the situation, they’ve inflamed the situation,” Al-Khalifa said. “They’ve outreached to the more hard-line element of the protesters.”

He closed by saying Bahrain is returning to normal and that the crown prince’s offer to negotiate still stands: “The way forward is I think once we see a total restoration of law and order, dialogue can commence and we will see a brighter and better Bahrain.”

Updated 6:30 p.m. ET | After the interview concluded, the Associated Press confirmed that Bahraini blogger Mahmoud al-Youssef — who was arrested early Wednesday — had been released late Thursday night.

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