Bahrain`s protesters demand royals cancel F1 race

Manama: Formula One`s season-opening Grand
Prix in Bahrain could be in jeopardy as newly emboldened
protesters in Manama have called for the royal family to scrap what
they see as a costly vanity project, though the race also is
the Gulf island`s premier international event.

Demonstrations shaking the Arab world have put F1
smack in the middle of a power struggle in the small kingdom
and US ally, and those trying to oust the island`s dynasty
know they have an important political tool in the Bahrain GP.

The race, which has been held since 2004, is
meaningful to Crown Prince Sheik Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa.
Having it called off would be embarrassing for the country and
painful to him.

"There is a big connection between (the uprising) and
Formula 1," said Hasan Dhani, a 23-year-old protester.

After days of seesaw battles in which seven demonstrators were
killed and hundreds wounded in battles around a landmark in
Manama, government forces retreated yesterday and allowed
protesters to reoccupy Pearl Square, giving demonstrators a
victory, at least temporarily.

The streets were calmer today as hundreds of marchers
prepared to spend a second consecutive night in the square,
with some planning to stay longer. The protest encampment
included a makeshift clinic and a barber. Food donations were
being collected in the center of the square. As night fell,
protesters carried blankets to their tents and men gathered in
open-air "cafes," sitting in arm chairs and smoking water

The drama turned to political haggling over demands
for the monarchy to give up its near-absolute control over key
policies and positions, with the March 13 race playing into
the equation. Opposition leaders from the nation`s Shiite
Muslim majority -- in a nation ruled by Sunni monarchs --
seemed in no hurry to sit down and negotiate or make promises
not to disrupt the grand prix.

Already, protests forced the cancellation of a
lower-tier GP2 Asia Series race this weekend.

"The race has been the prince`s dream since he was a
child," Dhani said. "He wants to negotiate so he can fulfill
this dream, and it makes me sad that his dream is more dear to
him than the needs of his people."

F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone said today he would rely on
the prince, who also is deputy supreme commander of the armed
forces, to decide whether the grand prix will take place.

"If anyone`s going to sort it out he`s the right guy
to do it," Ecclestone told a radio station today. "He would
decide whether or not it`s safe for us to be there. ... Let`s
wait until Tuesday and see if this one`s going to take place
before we decide what to do."

Bureau Report

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