Alarm at Shia gains in Bahrain's elections

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A radical Shia Islamist group has made significant gains in Bahrain's national elections, raising serious concern among neighbouring conservative Sunni monarchies in the region.

Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society has won 16 of the 40 seats in parliament and the party declares that its gains are even more significant than the figures suggest, because it had won all but one of the seats it had contested.

The outcome of the polls has had international reverberations. Bahrain is the base of the US Navy's 5th Fleet and one of the clutch of pro-Western states in the area. Developments here have been watched with trepidation in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

Bahraini officials accuse Iran of interfering in the elections by bankrolling Shia parties and even giving some factions arms training - claims strongly denied by Tehran.

Shias, who make up 60 per cent of the population of the kingdom, protest that they are economically underprivileged and have long been sidelined from the political process.

Government officials pointed out that the Shia party had targeted just the constituencies where it had a power base and had run a sectarian campaign. The opposition gains, they insisted, showed that the electoral process has been fair. Liberal candidates got a poor share of the votes.