MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Inspired by the movement behind Egypt’s military coup, anti-government activists seeking more influence in Bahrain are hoping to gain new momentum by calling for nationwide protests Wednesday. Authorities warned they will “forcefully confront” any large demonstrations, raising fears of more violence in the strategic Gulf kingdom.
Concrete barriers lined major streets in the capital, Manama, and security checkpoints surrounded by barbed wire guarded roads leading to the city from majority Shiite neighborhoods that house many of the protesters. And hundreds of security forces in riot gear stood guard near armored personnel carriers around what used to be Pearl Square, the epicenter of weeks of anti-government rallies that were met with a crackdown in 2011.
“Based on what we are following in the field, the government violence against protesters is inevitable,” said Hussain Yousif, a spokesman for the group organizing the rallies. “But we need to go ahead and show the world and the government that the Bahraini people have the right to express their political demands.”
The island nation with a native population of more than 550,000 has been gripped by near nonstop turmoil and increasingly divided along sectarian lines since February 2011, when Shiites inspired by the Arab Spring wave of revolutions began an uprising calling for a greater political voice in the Sunni-ruled country.
At least 60 people have died — activists and Shiite leaders say more than 100 — and prominent opposition and human rights figures have been jailed in the nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, the Pentagon’s main base to counter Iran’s expanding military presence in the Gulf and protect oil shipping lanes through the Gulf of Hormuz.
The U.S. State Department urged all sides to condemn violence and promote dialogue and reconciliation.
“We support the right of individuals to peacefully assemble and of course, the right of freedom of expression, including in Bahrain, and our support for these principles has not changed, including in Bahrain,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters in Washington.
The U.S. Embassy in Bahrain also was to be closed on Wednesday due to concerns about violence.
Clashes have eased in recent months and Bahrain’s leaders have made noticeable reforms along the way, including giving the elected parliament more oversight powers and pledging deeper investigations into alleged abuses by security forces. Although tangible concessions, they are dismissed by many Shiites as mere window dressing that still leaves the monarchy in control of all key posts and decisions, and the crackdown continued.
A group that has adopted the name of the Egyptian movement that paved the way for the military ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi hopes to stage nonviolent protests in nine areas of the country, with the largest expected in Manama, in a new push to persuade the government to grant greater political freedom in the country and to enact a new constitution.
The protests organized by the Tamarod Bahrain campaign, which comprises several opposition groups and has adopted the name of Egypt’s “Rebel” movement, will be held on the anniversary of the departure of British troops from the former protectorate in 1971 — a day not official recognized as a holiday by the government.
“The government will forcefully confront the suspicious calls to violate law and order and those who stand behind them through decisive measures,” Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa told the official Bahrain News Agency after an urgent Cabinet meeting on Monday.
There is no clear center of gravity in Bahrain’s uprising like Egypt’s Tahrir Square. Pearl Square was cleared by police raids and sealed off from the public in the early weeks of the unrest. Organizers have called instead on protesters to flood the streets.
Authorities in Bahrain warned of a heavy-handed crackdown on any large demonstrations. Bahrain’s parliament has passed strict new laws to curb dissent, including banning protests in the capital and giving authorities greater ability to strip citizenship from those convicted of violence.
Courts also have jailed prominent opposition figures and others, including some with alleged links to Iranian-backed groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Bahrain and other Gulf states claim Shiite-power Iran has a hand in the protests, something Iran denies.
Joe Stork, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, said Bahrain should allow the protests to go forward.
“The fact that some protesters perpetrate acts of violence in some demonstrations does not justify a blanket ban on demonstrations and protests in the capital city,” Stork said. “Bahrain’s total ban on protests clearly violates the right of citizens and residents to come together to raise political demands peacefully.”
The Tamarod campaign also has urged workers to join in a general strike and for shop owners to close their businesses. The Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry has urged workers and business owners to ignore the protests.
But trade unions already anticipate trouble Wednesday. They issued precautionary guidelines instructing members to park their vehicles outside of their villages to ensure safe travel and avoid potential road blocks, the state-backed Gulf Daily News reported.
But violence is a possibility. There have been attacks in recent weeks around Bahrain, including some from bombs made with natural gas canisters.
Protesters insist they’ll remain peaceful — and defiant.
“I will rebel,” said Najat Jaffer, an unemployed 27-year-old. “I don’t fear the authorities or their terror measures — I have nothing to lose.”
Bennett reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.