Saudi-led troops to stay in Bahrain

Saudi-led forces sent to Bahrain to help crush anti-government protests will remain even after emergency rule is lifted next month, the head of the kingdom's military has said.

Bahrain's crackdown on opposition continued yesterday when a special security court sentenced a protester to 15 years in prison. Twenty-one others had their cases continued by the court, which has ordered executions in some previous cases.

Shiite-led Iran has condemned the 1,500-strong Gulf Arab force in Bahrain as an "occupation" by Sunni states against Bahrain's Shiite majority, which has faced waves of arrests and crackdowns after protests for greater rights from the ruling Sunni monarchy began three months ago.

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In response, Gulf leaders have sharply warned Iran to stay out of their affairs and accused Bahrain's protesters of having links to groups such as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.

The Bahrain military commander, Sheik Khalifa bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, threatened even harsher crackdowns if demonstrators return to the streets in the strategic western ally, which is home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.

"I say to those who did not get the message, if you return we will come back, stronger this time," said Sheik Ahmed.

He claimed that protesters were "given pills which affected their minds and made them do unusual things" - a new allegation that echoed assertions by Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi.