Bahrain in state of emergency as crowd marches on Saudi embassy

Riyadh says one of its soldiers killed, as protesters demand end to foreign 'occupation'

The King of Bahrain has declared martial law, giving the military authority to end pro-democracy protests with the backing of 2,000 troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Some 10,000 Bahraini demonstrators marched on the Saudi embassy in the capital, Manama, yesterday to protest against the Saudi intervention, which an opposition statement said amounted to an occupation.

Significant parts of the island kingdom, which has a population of 600,000, remain in the hands of protesters, one of whom was reported to have been killed yesterday by the security services.

Iran has denounced the entry of foreign troops into Bahrain as unacceptable and says that the United States is responsible for Saudi actions, which will have "dangerous consequences".

As the main Shia power of the Gulf, Iran is sympathetic to the Shia of Bahrain, who make up 70 per cent of the kingdom's population and have been traditionally discriminated against by the Sunni ruling class. "The presence of foreign forces and interference in Bahrain's internal affairs is unacceptable and will further complicate the issue," Ramin Mehmanparast, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said.

Iran denies any involvement in the month-long protests and US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks say that there is no evidence for long-standing Bahraini government claims that the Shia opposition receives support and weapons from Iran. Bahrain has withdrawn its ambassador to Iran for consultations.

Iran claims that the US dragged Saudi Arabia into invading while the Pentagon denies that it had any advance warning of Saudi military intervention. But Bahrain is a vital US ally because it is home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and the US has been far more supportive of the ruling al-Khalifa family than it was of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt or President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. The White House has publicly called on the government of Bahrain to enter a dialogue with the opposition.

The three-month state of emergency hands significant powers to the Bahraini security forces, which are dominated by the Sunni minority. One of the protesters' complaints is that important jobs go to Sunnis, and that Sunnis from Middle East and South Asian countries are brought in as security men and given citizenship to keep the Shia as second-class citizens. The actual imposition of martial law may not make much difference to the security forces' powers since Bahrain is an absolute monarchy. But it is probably a sign of action to come, such as driving protesters from the streets by imposing a curfew, banning public meetings and clamping down on the press.

Despite some reports that the protesters planned to reopen a main road to Bahrain's financial district, metal barricades and piles of sand and rocks still blocked it. At checkpoints near the roundabout, activists, some wearing yellow vests, checked identities and waved cars through. Otherwise the streets were largely empty and shops closed. "We are staying peacefully. Even if they attack," Ali Mansoor, an activist at the Pearl roundabout, told Reuters. "Saudi Arabia has no right to come to Bahrain. Our problem is with the government not Saudi Arabia."

In the first sign of resistance to the Saudi force a security official in Saudi Arabia said a Saudi sergeant was shot and killed by a protester yesterday in Manama. No other details were immediately provided about the soldier, identified as Sgt Ahmed al-Raddadi.

There are growing signs of division between Shia and Sunni. People were placing rocks, skips, bins and pieces of metal on the road to prevent strangers from entering their neighbourhoods. Sectarian clashes between young men hurling rocks and using knives and clubs have become common. Such fighting broke out in different parts of Bahrain overnight Monday, with Sunnis and Shias trading accusations in the media.

Bahrain University and many schools have closed. An armed gang stormed the printing press of Bahrain's only opposition newspaper Al Wasat and tried to smash its presses and stop its publication. It was later published using machinery from other papers.

The opposition had begun by demanding civil, legal and political rights, but the rejection of compromise by the royal family and the violence of the security forces has led to an escalation of their demands. On 17 February the police attacked sleeping protesters at the Pearl roundabout and killed at least four of them. Opposition demands became more radical, seeking a constitutional monarchy or even the removal of the King.

A further miscalculation by the authorities on Sunday resulted in riot police attacking protesters near the financial district, provoking a counter-attack by thousands of protesters who drove the police from the streets. That led the royal family to ask Saudi Arabia for help as a member of the Gulf Co-operation Council to which Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman also belong. Bahrain's crisis now involves all of the Gulf countries.

What is the Gulf co-operation council?

The Gulf Co-operation Council is rather an odd organisation to be deploying troops for the benefit of one of its members. The sight of tanks and armoured personnel carriers crossing the causeway to support the Bahraini government's state of emergency is a departure from the GCC's regular work of greasing the Gulf's oil-rich economies.

The confusion is only compounded by a GCC foreign ministers' statement just a week ago, which described Colonel Gaddafi as "illegitimate" for using force against his own people in Libya.

Established in 1981 by Saudi Arabia and the governments of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE, the aim of these oil and gas rich kingdoms was to effect "inter-connection between member states in all fields in order to achieve unity between them", the GCC charter says. Economic and commercial links feature high on its objectives. Sending in troops to quell demonstrations by repressed minorities does not, although its "Peninsula Shield Force" has always allowed for the possibility. Like the EU, which began life as an economic bloc designed to stop Europe's industrial powers standing on each other's toes, the GCC's purpose was to ensure that some of the world's biggest oil and gas producers did nothing to upset the balance in the region. Like the EU, the region's laggards – in this case Iraq and Yemen – were not initially invited to the party.

Huge oil revenues, and until the last decade, massive returns from the financial services and property sectors, have ensured the GCC's importance and relevance, even if the global financial crisis dented the reputations of a number of its members. A GCC military campaign is, however, a venture into the unknown.

Alistair Dawber