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Bahrain becomes flashpoint in relations between US and Saudi Arabia

A last minute deal between Bahrain's monarchy and protesters, brokered by the US, may have been scuttled by Saudi Arabia.

On Monday, about 1,200 Saudi National Guard troops drove a long convoy of armored cars across the four-lane, 16-mile causeway linking their country to Bahrain. Five hundred policemen from the United Arab Emirates followed. The forces were described as a contingent from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council that was rushing to the defense of one of its members.

It was the first time the Gulf Cooperation Council intervened in a domestic dispute of a member. The Saudis officially informed U.S. officials of their decision to send in troops on Monday.

Meanwhile, even as foreign troops entered his country, Crown Prince Salman had not given up trying to coax the moderate Shia opposition into talks.

On Monday, he sent four intermediaries to a late afternoon gathering of opposition figures from several parties at the headquarters of Wefaq National Islamic Society, the largest and most influential group, according to Abdulnabi Salman, deputy secretary general of the Democratic Progressive Tribune, a small party comprised mostly of former communists.

The intermediaries urged the opposition to be flexible, help the crown prince out and accept a dialogue immediately. But the opposition remained skeptical and mistrustful. It wanted to know who they would be negotiating with and if he would accept an elected constituent assembly to write a new constitution. The emissaries of the crown prince asked if he did, would they accept that it made decisions on a two-thirds vote rather than a simple majority.

The meeting ended inconclusively.

(Read: Bahrain mired in a dangerous stalemate)

Also on Monday, Feltman arrived. It was his fifth visit to Bahrain since the protest movement began on Feb. 14. According to senior Wefaq officials, he and embassy officials met with the opposition that night.

“The embassy people were complaining about our delaying” in accepting the crown prince’s offer of dialogue, said Abdulnabi Salman of the Tribune party. “We told them about our reasons for our lack of confidence,” he added, referring to past promises from the government to enact political reforms that went unmet.

On Tuesday, Feltman met with the Crown Prince in the morning, according to a State Department official. Then, in the afternoon, as King Hamad was declaring a state of emergency and curfew, Feltman met again with Wefaq officials.

He was trying to hammer out some kind of accommodation that would allow talks on political reform to get underway. It is not clear exactly what his proposal was. Some sources describe it as a “mediation” proposal. Others say it was like “a code of conduct” to restore order to the capital’s increasingly lawless streets so that a genuine political dialogue could start.

Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman said in an interview with three of his top aides that they accepted Feltman’s proposal and that the U.S. diplomat said he would get back to them after obtaining the assent of the Crown Prince.

But late Tuesday evening, they said, they were told that Feltman still had not be able to reach the king or crown prince.

“Feltman was trying, according to our information, to get any response from the government and nobody was responding,” said Wefaq’s Abdul Jalil Khalil Ebrahim.
“My guess is that the king and crown prince had nothing they could say to Feltman, because Saudi Arabia was calling the shots at that stage,” said Augustus Richard Norton, a Middle East scholar at Boston University.

Hours later, at first light on Wednesday morning, government security forces swept through Pearl Roundabout, arresting those who did not flee and ripping down all evidence of the protesters’ presence.