Dubai, United Arab Emirates (AP) - Gulf troops will stay in Bahrain until its Sunni rulers are satisfied that threats from Iran have eased, the island kingdom's foreign minister said Monday amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent.
Bahrain's king declared martial law last month and invited about 1,500 troops from Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states to help contain a Shiite uprising that Sunni leaders around the oil-rich region believe could open the way for greater influence by Shiite powerhouse Iran.
The country's foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, told reporters that the Gulf force is needed to counter a "sustained campaign" by Iran in Bahrain, the host of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
"There is an external threat on the whole Gulf," the minister said on the sidelines of an anti-piracy conference in Dubai. He denied the Gulf force is "policing" the majority Shiite nation and emphasized the foreign forces' stated mission is to protect Bahrain's "vital installations against a foreign threat."
Authorities claimed they see Iran's influence in the Shiite opposition that has staged weeks of demonstrations and sit-ins demanding greater political freedoms and equal rights.
Tehran has denounced the deployment of a Saudi-led force to help prop up Bahrain's monarchy and condemned the crackdown.
Hundreds of protesters, opposition leaders and human rights activists have been taken into custody since Bahrain declared emergency rule March 15 attempts to crush the revolt.
Bahrain's state news agency said on Monday seven detained opposition supporters will go on trial before a military court for the killing of two policemen.
The report by the Bahrain News Agency said a military prosecutor charged the seven with premeditated murder on Sunday. They also face "other charges," the report said. It did not elaborate, except to say the two policemen died after being run over by a car in the capital Manama.
Another hearing in the case is set for Tuesday.
The seven are the first of the hundreds taken in custody to be charged with a crime since Bahrain's military stormed the protesters' encampment in Manama's Pearl Square a month ago.
Earlier this month the authorities banned media from covering legal proceedings in the country's military courts. Bahrain's human rights organizations blasted the gag order, saying that trials behind closed doors have no legal credibility.
"If a government decides to hold trials in secret, it is very likely the government is hiding something," said Nabeel Rajab, the head of Bahrain's Human Rights Center.
Among those detained are also dozens of Shiite professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, including the lawyer who was to defend the seven suspected opposition supporters in the military court, Rajab said.
The attorney, Mohammed al-Tajer, is one of Bahrain's most prominent human rights lawyers. He has represented hundreds of clients against the state, including Shiite activists accused of plotting against the Sunni monarchy. He was taken into custody on Saturday.
At least 30 people have died since Feb. 15, when anti-government protests erupted in Bahrain, inspired by the uprisings in the Arab world. Four opposition supporters have also died in police custody.
Associated Press writer Adam Schreck contributed to this report from Dubai.