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Bahrain protests: A point of no return for ruling family – and Obama

After security forces assaulted demonstrators in Bahrain's Pearl Square last week, 100,000 protesters rose up with even stronger demands yesterday. As the situation escalates, Obama must do more than denounce violence. The US must urge Bahrain to empower its crippled parliament.

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The Bahraini security forces’ assault on peaceful demonstrators and the unprecedented protests in Pearl Square laid bare any doubts that Bahrain's ruling Al Khalifa family now faces the gravest test of its legitimacy in more than a decade and quite possibly in its reign.

In many ways, current developments signal a point of no return. The principal Shiite political bloc has disengaged from parliament, creating broad new constituencies for militancy. The regime has shifted its tactics from violent suppression to conciliatory gestures like the release of political prisoners and attempts at dialogue. But popular fury and cynicism against the ruling family has reached unparalleled levels, sharpening divisions between Sunnis and Shiites.

IN PICTURES: Bahrain protests

The window for reconciliation and dialogue is rapidly closing as the country slides back to the dark shadows of the mid-1990s, when an intifada shook the tiny kingdom for five years. It left scores dead and inflicted lasting damage on the economy.

The current crisis also tests America’s moral standing in a rapidly changing Middle East. While the Obama administration has made immediate demands on the royal family to halt the violence and preserve remaining channels for reform, there is more to be done.

A new approach might pursue three objectives. 1) Condemn the crackdown and the regime’s mischaracterization of the opposition (which President Obama has done). 2) Urge that King Hamad launch an investigation into the conduct of the security forces and end the recruitment of non-Bahrainis. 3) And most important, take immediate steps to re-empower the Bahraini parliament and alleviate the material grievances that have galvanized the opposition.

Stop distrust sown between Sunnis and Shiites

First and foremost, the US could forcefully and publicly refute the Bahraini government’s timeworn argument that pro-democracy protests are a bid for supremacy by the Shiite majority, orchestrated by Iran. The regime has long played up fears of a Shiite “winner take all” strategy as one backed by Iran to sow distrust between Shiite activists and their liberal Sunni allies.

This tactic has obscured the underlying problem in Bahrain. It is not sectarianism or Iranian influence, but rather the rule of the few over the wishes of the many. True, the Sunni-Shiite split is a major societal division on the island. But many in Bahrain argue that this would not be so if the country had a more just and representative form of government and equitable distribution of resources.

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