MANAMA, Bahrain - Tens of thousands of protesters chanting “Bahrain is not for sale’’ jammed a major highway Friday to denounce proposals for unity between the unrest-torn Gulf kingdom and Saudi Arabia.
The rally’s large turnout - demonstrators stretched for more than three miles on a major highway - underscored the strong backlash to efforts by Bahrain’s rulers to integrate policies such as defense and foreign affairs with their Saudi neighbor.
Saudi Arabia has aided Bahrain’s embattled Sunni monarchy with troops and money during the island nation’s 15-month uprising.
Leaders for Bahrain’s majority Shi’ites call the unity proposal a sellout of the country’s independence and an effort to give Saudi security forces a stronger hand in crackdowns in the strategic island kingdom, which is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Gulf Arab leaders earlier this week delayed any decisions on seeking greater unity among members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. Some members, such as the United Arab Emirates, also have raised questions about whether closer council cooperation would give too much power to Saudi Arabia.
Crowds streaming along a highway outside Bahrain’s capital Manama Friday chanted slogans, such as “No unity, no unity,’’ and “Bahrain is not for sale.’’
Bahrain has been hit by near daily protests and clashes since the Shi’ite-led uprising began in February 2011, inspired by revolts in other Arab countries. Opposition groups seek a greater Shi’ite political voice in the Sunni-ruled nations. At least 50 people have died in the unrest in Bahrain, where a Saudi-led Gulf force came to the aid of the ruling dynasty last year.
There were no immediate reports of violence in Friday’s rally.
Bahrain’s leaders have blamed Shi’ite power Iran for encouraging the uprising, although there has been no clear evidence to support the charge. Nonetheless, many Iranians have expressed sympathy with Bahrain’s Shi’ites.