Bahrain's Shiite opposition leader on Wednesday urged Shiite Iran to keep out of the Arab country's internal affairs, after government charges that Tehran had orchestrated month-long protests.
Ali Salman also warned against Bahrain being used for a proxy war between rival regional superpowers Iran and Saudi Arabia.
"We urge Iran not to meddle in Bahraini internal affairs," he told a press conference, also demanding the withdrawal of Saudi-led Gulf troops deployed in the kingdom in mid-March to help quash the protests.
"We demand Saudi Arabia withdraw the Peninsula Shield forces," he said. "We do not want Bahrain to turn into a battlefield for Saudi Arabia and Iran."
Twenty-four people, four of them police, were killed in a month of unrest, Bahrain's Interior Minister Rashed bin Abdullah Al-Khalifa said on Wednesday, linking the troubles to Lebanon's Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah.
Bahrain's main Shiite opposition group, the Wefaq party, says 250 people have been detained and another 44 have gone missing since the crackdown.
The security measures were condemned by Iran, the main Shiite power in a region dominated by Sunni Muslim rulers, which said they could lead to a wider conflict.
An Iranian "offensive"
Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled al-Khalifa said Iran should stop its "offensive" against Bahrain, telling pan-Arab daily al-Hayat that political dialogue could only start once security had been restored in the island kingdom. Opposition parties reiterated denials of any foreign backing on Wednesday.
More than 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shiites and most are calling for a constitutional monarchy. But demands by hardliners for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed minority Sunnis, who fear unrest serves Iran.
Sheikh Khaled told al-Hayat that Bahrain did not want Iranian mediation and called on "Iranians to stop this offensive that we have been exposed to."
He also renewed accusations Hezbollah was "training" regime opponents.
"There have been sectarian tensions everywhere" for centuries, he said, "Bahrain was afraid sectarian confrontations would break out not only in Bahrain but in all other regions."
On Friday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned that military intervention in Bahrain by its Sunni neighbors in the Gulf risked a sectarian war in the region.
Sheikh Khaled argued that unrest in Bahrain was fired not so much by political opposition to the regime but rather a sectarian division.
"We want to affirm to the world that we don't have a problem between the government and the opposition ... There is a clear sectarian problem in Bahrain. There is division within society," Sheikh Khaled said.
"Today we are suffering from this problem between Sunnis and Shiites."
Sheikh Khaled told the London-based Al-Hayat that Manama had "proof on the way some parties inside and outside Bahrain have been plotting with Hezbollah," and that training for public protests and taken place in Lebanon.
But authorities in Bahrain have no intention to take measures against Lebanese living in the kingdom, he said.
Wefaq and six smaller opposition groups rejected claims by the government that protests were organized by outside forces and said Bahrainis were striving for democracy and freedoms.
"We don't want Bahrain to be a place for other countries to settle their accounts," Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman told a news conference in Manama.