DUBAI, March 10 (Reuters) - Arab uprisings that have spread to the conservative Gulf region face a crucial test this week in Saudi Arabia where activists have made unprecedented calls for mass protests against the kingdom's absolute monarchy.
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Gulf leaders are struggling to hold back an Internet-era generation of Arabs who appear less inclined to accept arguments appealing to religion and tradition to explain why ordinary citizens should be shut out of decision-making.
Protests are planned in other Gulf countries such as Yemen, Kuwait and Bahrain on Friday, the region's weekend. The time after Friday prayers has proved to be crucial in popular uprisings that have brought down Tunisian and Egyptian rulers who once seemed invulnerable.
Saudi Arabia, the largest country in the Gulf, is home to Islam's holiest sites and a long-time U.S. ally that has ensured oil supplies for the West.
More than 32,000 people have backed a Facebook call to hold two demonstrations in the country, the first of them on Friday. Saudi police dispersed a protest by a Shi'ite minority in the OPEC member's oil-producing Eastern province near Bahrain on Thursday with one to four people wounded as shots were heard, witnesses said.
It was the latest of a series of small protests by Eastern Province Shi'ites over the past three weeks and clerics are trying to dissuade Sunnis in the major cities from joining in by branding the demonstrations a Shi'ite phenomenon.
"Secret Shi'ite hands want to corrupt this country," messages sent to mobile phones this week said.
Riyadh has tried to counter the call with promises of money and other measures including a pro-government Facebook page "against the revolution" with 23,000 supporters.
"There is no fear but much anticipation. I don't necessarily think much will happen tomorrow, but the most important thing is that an idea has appeared," said former Saudi judge Abdelaziz al-Gassem, adding small numbers could set off a chain reaction.
"(Gulf rulers) are deluded in thinking they can ignore the demands," he said. "They are facing their biggest test ever, bigger than al Qaeda -- the people demanding justice, equality, the rule of law, supervision of government. This cannot be dealt with through violence."
Saudi Arabia has tried to present itself over the years as immune to the kind of activism now sweeping the Arab world. But al-Gassem, a campaigner for reforms, said these arguments were "nonsense".
SHI'ITES LEAD THE WAY
"What the regime is worried about is setting a precedent for protests, that when people have problems they're going to feel more comfortable and more willing to take to the streets," said Shadi Hamid, an analyst with the Brookings Institute in Qatar.
Washington -- which has buttressed the Gulf dynasties as a counterbalance to Iran -- raised the stakes in comments this week calling peaceful assembly a universal right that must be respected even in a country that claims unique status as an Islamic state like Saudi Arabia.
Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal slammed "foreign intervention" in a news conference on Wednesday that seemed to highlight the problems facing a family that monopolises political life in a country named after them.
"The called-for reform does not come via protests and (the clerics) have forbidden protests since they violate the Koran and the way of the Prophet," said Prince Saud, who has occupied the foreign minister portfolio since 1975.
STARTED IN YEMEN AND SPREAD
The protest movements hit populous Yemen a month ago and spread to the Gulf states where dynasties who secured their rule in colonial times and have bought their people's acquiescence by dispensing petrodollars.
Bahrain has been the most vulnerable. Majority Shi'ites who resent domination by the al-Khalifa dynasty have staged pro-democracy protests and analysts say Saudi pressure has been heavy on Manama to stamp them out.
This week hardline Shi'ite groups formed an alliance to ditch the monarchy and turn Bahrain -- an island state whose rulers look to Riyadh for support -- into a republic. They are planning a march on the royal palace on Friday.
Yemen is also set for an escalation after opposition groups, who have held pro-democracy marches for the past month, rejected veteran ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh's offer of reforms on Thursday.
A small number of Kuwaitis held protests this week, while activists and intellectuals in the United Arab Emirates petitioned the rulers for democratic elections. Last week Omanis clashed with police over jobs and corruption in government.
Several Gulf rulers seem to hope more money will solve their problems.
Saudi King Abdullah has vowed to distribute some $37 billion in handouts to students, the unemployed and other low-income Saudis via a series of pay bonuses and benefits announced as he returned in February after a three-month absence for medical treatment.
Gulf Arab oil producers launched a $20 billion aid package on Thursday for poorer Gulf countries Bahrain and Oman.
"For most of us, it's not about money, it's about having a share in our government," said Mohammed al-Mansoori, a rights activist in the United Arab Emirates. "In other places people have dignity, here, people don't." (Additional reporting by Erika Solomon; editing by Philippa Fletcher)
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03/11/2011 6:31 PM EST
U.S. Extends Sanctions On Libya
Reports the AP:
The Obama administration extended its Libya sanctions to more Gadhafi family members and close advisers on Thursday, blacklisting business with the Libyan leader's wife, four of his children and his chief of military intelligence.
The Treasury Department froze the assets of nine Libyans in all as part of the strategy to peel off Moammar Gadhafi's closest advisers while punishing those who remain loyal to the regime even as it commits human rights violations.
The sanctions come on top of those previously announced by the administration, which accounted for $32 billion in Libyan government assets blocked in the United States.
03/11/2011 5:33 PM EST
Sarkozy Calls For Air Strikes If Gaddafi Attacks Civilians
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for airstrikes against Gaddafi forces if the leader attacks civilians. According to the Guardian:
Nicolas Sarkozy has called for targeted air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi's regime if his forces use chemical weapons or launch air strikes against civilians.
As the EU foreign policy chief, Lady Ashton, warned that a no-fly zone could risk civilian lives in Libya, the French president told an emergency EU summit in Brussels that air strikes may soon be justified.
"The strikes would be solely of a defensive nature if Mr Gaddafi makes use of chemical weapons or air strikes against non-violent protesters," Sarkozy said. The French president qualified his remarks by saying he had many reservations about military intervention in Libya "because Arab revolutions belong to Arabs".
03/11/2011 5:06 PM EST
Dutch Helicopter Crew Freed
A Dutch helicopter crew taken captive in Libya has been freed and sent to Greece. The BBC is reporting:
The two men and one woman arrived in Athens on a Greek military transport plane hours after a son of Muammar Gaddafi announced their release.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi said Libya would hold on to the crew's Lynx helicopter.
The woman pilot, Yvonne Niersman, took part in a mission last year to free a German ship from Somali pirates.
Ms Niersman and her fellow crew members were captured in Libya after flying in from the Dutch warship Tromp, anchored off the coast.
Read the entire report here.
03/11/2011 4:43 PM EST
McCain Praises Moroccan King
Senator John McCain praised Morocco's King Mohammed VI for his pledge to introduce democratic reforms. According to the AFP:
"This new reform agenda builds on the king's long-standing commitment to lead Morocco to a future of reform and modernization, and it could ensure that the Kingdom of Morocco will continue to stand as a positive example to governments across the Middle East and North Africa," said McCain.
03/11/2011 3:40 PM EST
Gaddafi Offers Amnesty To Rebels
Reuters is reporting that Gaddafi is now offering to offer amnesty to those rebels who lay own arms.
03/11/2011 3:28 PM EST
2 Protesters Killed In Tunisia
The AP reports:
Tunisia's Interior Ministry says a new eruption of violence between police and protesters has killed two people and injured 20.
The ministry says on its Facebook page that police fired tear gas and demonstrators threw stones and gasoline bombs.
The statement says two protesters were killed in the incident in Metlaoui, a mining town in the center of the Mediterranean country.
The violence comes as Tunisia's interim government is trying to restore stability after deadly protests that drove out longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January. That prompted uprisings around the Arab world.
03/11/2011 2:39 PM EST
Berlusconi Says Hardline With Gaddafi A Mistake
Berlusconi is saying that the West may have made a mistake by taking a hardline against Gaddafi, which may have backed the Libyan leader into a corner. Reports Reuters:
The hardline stance taken by major powers against Muammar Gaddafi may have backed the Libyan leader into a corner and prevented a quiet exit, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Friday. Speaking after a special meeting of EU leaders, Berlusconi, one of Gaddafi's closest friends in Europe until the current upheaval, said the chances of persuading him to give up power voluntarily now appeared to have disappeared.
"Once someone put forward the idea of bringing Gaddafi before the International Criminal Court, I think the idea of staying in power became entrenched with him and I don't think anyone can make him change his mind," he told reporters.
Read the entire report here.
03/11/2011 2:16 PM EST
Who Are The Libyan Rebels?
The AP is reporting that the rebels fighting Gaddafi forces are amateurs, but deeply committed to the cause:
Moammar Gadhafi has ruled Libya since long before the 25-year-old was born, and he hates the dictator enough to risk his life by fighting for the ragtag rebel force battling government troops along a desolate highway on the North African country's Mediterranean coast.
"I will fight forever. I will die or win, like Omar Mukhtar," said Salem, invoking the legendary Libyan hero who fought Italian occupiers in the 1930s, was ultimately executed, and has become a symbol for the new revolutionaries.
The front-line force trying to advance toward Gadhafi's stronghold in the capital Tripoli is surprisingly small. Not counting supporters who bolster them in the towns along their path, it is estimated at 1,500 at most — Libyans from all walks of life, from students and coffeeshop owners to businessmen who picked up whatever weapons they could and joined the fight. No one seems to know their full size, and they could be picking up new members all the time.
Its ramshackle nature explains the dramatic lurches the fighting has taken. Last week, they took control over a stretch of Mediterranean coastal land that included major oil installations in the ports of Brega and Ras Lanouf. They charged enthusiastically further west, reaching within a few dozen miles of Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, a bastion of support for the leader of 41 years.
03/11/2011 1:03 PM EST
Gaddafi Forces Show Signs Of Victory
Reports the AP:
Moammar Gadhafi's regime has gained momentum with the capture of a key city near Tripoli after days of fierce fighting with rebels.
The battle for Zawiya has emerged as a key test in the government's ability to maintain its hold on the Libyan capital and surrounding areas.
The government had claimed victory on Wednesday, but the rebels who are seeking to oust Gadhafi said fighting was ongoing.
An Associated Press reporter, who was escorted with other journalists into the city on Friday, says the main square that had been the center of resistance is clearly in government control.
03/11/2011 12:47 PM EST
Obama On Libya
Obama noted all of the sanctions and property seizures that have already been implemented against Gaddafi, saying, "Across the board, we are tightening the noose on Gaddafi." He says that NATO is discussing potential military actions in Libya, including a no-fly zone, and will meet on Tuesday. He said that a position will be created for a liaison to speak with Libyan opposition groups. He said that the international community had moved quickly to isolate Gaddafi.
Obama said that no options have been taken off the table so far. In response to a question about whether it would ever be acceptable to the U.S. for Gaddafi to stay in power, Obama stated that "it is in the U.S.' interest and the interest of the Libyan people for Gaddafi to leave." He added, however, that when making a decision to engage militarily, he would weigh the "costs and benefits."