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The mass protest movement in Bahrain has turned into a bitter sectarian confrontation. The tiny island nation is mostly populated by Shiites. The visiting crown prince and the ruling royal family are Sunni. And analysts say the family is now pushing a sectarian agenda that might eventually be its undoing.

NPR's Kelly McEvers has that story.

KELLY MCEVERS: From the very beginning it was no secret that most of the protesters in Bahrain were Shiites.

(Soundbite of protesters)

MCEVERS: Shiites are the underdogs in Bahrain. They're generally poorer than the average Bahraini, and they're kept out of top positions in government. Meanwhile, the government imports Sunnis from Pakistan, Syria and Yemen and elsewhere to tip the scales in favor of Sunnis.

As the February protests continued into March, Bahrain's state-run media began casting the uprising in sectarian and religious terms. The government rounded up Shiites, detained them, beat them, and fired them from their jobs. And radical Sunni groups emerged from the shadows.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: In this video, a Sunni member of parliament wields a sword, as he encourages his followers to take whatever means necessary to stop the protesters. At the end, he implores God to help Sunnis defeat Shiites.

The rhetoric is particularly ugly online. One government-sanctioned website recently threatened violence against an American diplomat, because he'd documented abuses against Shiites. The site posted a photograph from the diplomat's wedding and gave his address.

In the past several weeks, authorities have demolished more than 40 Shiite mosques across Bahrain, like the al-Alawiyat Mosque that used to stand in the middle of the capital, Manama.

(Soundbite of a vehicle)

MCEVERS: So we're driving by it now. It looks just like an open field, yep. You can see the foundation. There's rebar sticking out of the sand but otherwise it's totally, totally gone. It's just a big open expanse of sand. Some officials claim the mosques were illegally built and that's why they were torn down. Others have produced documents showing their legal registration.

At this point, it all boils down to who controls the narrative about what happened in February and March. If you're a Shiite, the protests were completely peaceful and the resulting crackdown is a brutal persecution of a group that, for 1,400 years, has suffered as the minority in Islam. In reality, protesters did throw rocks, block roads and destroy property. It's even alleged they ran over a police officer and killed him.

If you're a Sunni, you're the one who was persecuted by radical groups who want to topple the regime, says Sheikh Abdulatif Mahmoud al-Mahmoud. He leads a largely Sunni movement that recently has held mass rallies, with slogans like: Now It's Our Turn.

Sheikh ABDULATIF MAHMOUD AL-MAHMOUD: (Through Translator) Anybody expresses his own point of view, that is not a crime. But if you are trying to lead a force which is calling for bringing the regime down, that would be illegal and is not accepted.

MCEVERS: Like most Sunnis in Bahrain, Mahmoud believes the protest movement was actually orchestrated by Shiite-dominated Iran, just next door. But when pressed for evidence of such a plot, Mahmoud can only point to isolated events, like the fact that Iranian state TV was reporting during the protests.

Sheikh AL-MAHMOUD: (Through Translator) They were broadcasting directly to media channels, which were financed by Iran, for the opposers against the regime.

MCEVERS: Staci Haag is the regional director for the National Democratic Institute. She says pinning the blame on Shiite Iran is little more than a ploy by Bahrain's royal family to gain support from the West and from its own people.

Ms. STACI HAAG (Regional Director, National Democratic Institute): Bahrain society generally is made up of a lot of moderate people. But if you create divisions then you also have, you know, moderate Sunnis who are pushed more towards the government side because this creates a sense of fear between the two communities. And people are, quite frankly, forced to pick sides.

MCEVERS: The question now is, will a dialogue planned for next month bring Bahrain back to the way it was, when Sunnis and Shiites didn't pick sides and lived together in peace.

Sectarian conflict in Iraq eventually turned brutal and violent. And the uprising in Syria is beginning to take on a sectarian tone that many worry could spill into deeply divided Lebanon.

Haag and other Western analysts say Bahrain's ruling family may eventually come to regret lighting a sectarian fire that they can't put out.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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