Manama: Bahrain's authorities took broad swipes at Iran on Saturday, accusing Iranian-based hackers of trying to crack into a government website and urging a boycott of Iranian goods in retaliation for alleged interference in the island kingdom's unrest.
The latest political salvos by Bahrain's Sunni rulers are likely to deepen tensions with Shi’ite power Iran, which has been sharply critical of the kingdom's crackdown on Shi’ite protesters demanding more freedoms.
Bahrain and other Sunni Arab leaders in the Gulf accuse Iran of meddling in their affairs and seeking gains from the region's unrest — a charge Iran denies.
Iran has denounced Gulf leaders for dispatching a Saudi-led military force to prop up Bahrain's monarchy and try to quell the protests by Shi’ites, who comprise 70 percent of the population but are excluded from key government and security posts.
More than 30 people have died since February 15, when the anti-government protests erupted. On Saturday, relatives said a six-year-old boy died from respiratory problems triggered by a tear gas attack from security forces a day earlier in the mostly Shi’ite area of Sitra, one of the hotbeds of the protests. The relatives spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals from authorities.
The state-run Bahrain News Agency said Iranian computer hackers tried to access the official website of the Housing Ministry in attempts to seek data on aid recipients. The report gave no other details, but it could be linked to Shi’ite allegations that a disproportionate share of housing aid goes to Sunnis.
The Bahrain Chamber for Commerce and Industry, meanwhile, called for a countrywide boycott of all Iranian goods and services because of "blatant interference in Bahrain's domestic affairs and threats to the kingdom's national security”. It also appeals for other nations in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council to join the proposed embargo.
"It will be great support for the GCC countries as they deal with the relentless onslaught from Iran to divide their societies and spread sedition, discord and divisions," the chamber said in a statement carried by the Bahrain News Agency. The GCC includes Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
Iran is not among Bahrain's leading trading partners, but there have been efforts to expand business contacts through joint ventures such as tourism and agriculture. Last year, Iran said it hoped to boost two-way trade with Bahrain to more than USD 5 billion a year.
The boycott call comes less than a week after Bahrain ordered the expulsion of an Iranian diplomat from the strategic nation, which is home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet.
The turmoil — the most serious in the Gulf since the Arab uprisings began — also forced the cancellation in March of Formula One's season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix in a huge blow to the economy.
A statement on Saturday by Zayed Rashid Alzayani, chairman of the Bahrain International Circuit, expressed hope that the race still could be rescheduled for later this year.
Bahrain had been asked to inform motor sport's governing body FIA on a new date by Sunday. But F-1 boss Bernie Ecclestone said this week that Bahrain should have more time to assess whether it can hold the race.
"While obviously the kingdom has had to put its national affairs first, I have never been in any doubts that restoring the Bahrain Grand Prix has been of paramount importance," Ecclestone said. "In eight years with my relationship with Bahrain, I have always been confident that they will produce something special."
But the pro-democracy group Youth of February 14 Revolution has launched a Facebook campaign calling on Ecclestone not to reschedule the race "until basic human rights and freedoms are restored”.
As part of the crackdown, authorities have arrested journalists, bloggers, doctors, lawyers, activists and several members of the country's national football team. They have also suspended another 150 athletes, coaches and referees since April 05 for their alleged involvement in protests.
On Thursday, four anti-government protesters were convicted of killing two policemen and sentenced to death by a military court.
Sheik Isa Qassim, one of the country's top clerics, told thousands of worshippers at Friday prayers that the sentences could bring more rage from the country's Shi’ite majority since authorities have not made similar investigations into violence used against demonstrators.
First Published: Sunday, May 01, 2011, 00:14