War fear clouds Bahrain elections

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The Independent Online

Bahrain was celebrating the peaceful outcome this weekend of its first elections in 29 years, seen as a crucial step towards modernisation.

Bahrain was celebrating the peaceful outcome this weekend of its first elections in 29 years, seen as a crucial step towards modernisation.

Just over 50 per cent of the electorate, including women, cast their votes, in the face of a boycott demanded by opposition Islamist groups. Britain in particular believes this outbreak of democracy may now spread to the rest of the semi-feudal regimes in the Gulf. Kuwait is the only other state which holds legislative elections, and it excludes women from voting.

But the large and growing presence of American and some British forces in the kingdom has sparked opposition, and became an issue in the election campaign. Politicians and diplomats fear that if the US and Britain carry out their threats to attack Iraq, using Bahrain as a launchpad, support for the Islamists will increase.

Opposition to such a war is the only thing that unites the rulers, the opposition and the population of Bahrain: Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the guiding force behind the political reforms, has spoken repeatedly in the past few days about the catastrophic political and economic consequences of military action.

Yet Bahrain is bound to play a crucial role in any attack on Iraq. The kingdom hosts the US 5th Fleet, a vast battle group led by the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and including attack submarines, cruisers, destroyers and up to 70 fighters, at a base near the capital, Manama.

American bombers, tactical fighters and refuelling tankers fly from the Sheikh Isa airbase, while units of the Amphibious Ready assault group of US Marines, at present on an exercise in the Horn of Africa, are also based in Bahrain. The number of US troops in the tiny Gulf state is expected to rise from about 2,000 to 4,500 when deployment is complete. Britain bases Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft and VC-10 tankers there, and will augment the numbers in the event of a war.

Saudi Arabia's reluctance to replay its central role in US and British military operations in the first Gulf War has put the focus on the Gulf states. Al Udeid airbase in neighbouring Qatar has also become a hub of American operations, and may be used as the campaign headquarters for the US General Tommy Franks, who will lead any assault on Iraq.

But Qatar, too, fears the reaction to war. It has held municipal elections, and a new constitution, on the Bahraini model, is being drawn up. Whether it is implemented will depend on what happens when the expected conflagration erupts in the Gulf.

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