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MANAMA, June 9 (Reuters) - Sectarian tension between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims has reached new heights in Bahrain after pro-democracy protests that the Sunni minority government crushed with martial law and foreign military forces.
Inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, Sunni and Shi'ite Bahrainis took to the streets in early February to demand political reforms in a country where the ruling Al Khalifa family appoints cabinet ministers and an upper house of parliament, neutering the powers of the elected assembly.
An idealistic movement began with slogans such as "No Sunni, No Shi'ite -- Just Bahraini", but now sectarian fear and anger are uppermost on this small island state where Saudi Arabia and Iran are playing out a proxy contest for regional supremacy.
Sunnis and Shi'ites talk of friends lost and of a rift that once seemed manageable. Sunnis feel threatened, Shi'ites abused.
Fatima, a Shi'ite accountancy graduate, recalled past tensions, when Shi'ites clashed with police and faced trials in the 1990s, but said the government response was harsher this time because the protest movement was so large and unexpected.
"It hurts me. I have very close Sunni friends. People inter-married and had close personal relations," she said. "Even if the government took a step back now, the Sunnis have been convinced that we are criminals."
Shi'ites have long complained of discrimination in Bahrain, saying the government distributes jobs and housing on a pro-Sunni sectarian basis, to the extent of giving nationality to Sunnis from other countries to offset Shi'ite numbers.
There are few Shi'ites in the army and their number in the state bureaucracy has steadily dwindled since independence from Britain in 1971, Shi'ites say. The government denies this.
Sunnis often point to the wealth of many Shi'ites and accuse them of clannishness in business.
Thousands of Shi'ites were detained, fired or suspended from work under martial law -- 21 rights activists and political figures face military trial for trying to overthrow the system and 48 doctors and nurses are on trial for storing weapons, seizing control of a hospital and anti-government incitement.
State media have used sectarian language to paint the democracy movement as a Shi'ite bid to overthrow the royal family and create a religious state with Iranian backing.
Shi'ite doctors have made television confessions, saying they had aggravated the wounds of protesters to cast police in a bad light, or had helped protesters hide weapons.
Those released on bail say they were forced to record such confessions to accusations they consider ridiculous and which have rarely been levelled before in such political conflicts.
But many Sunnis take them at face value. "They (Shi'ites) are very aggressive, very rude. They want to take everything by force," said Sunni taxi driver Ali al-Balooshi.
Callers to state television refer to Shi'ites with slurs such as "sons of mut'a", a reference to a Shi'ite form of temporary marriage, or "Safawi", the Safavid dynasty that converted Iran to Shi'ism in the 16th century.
Officials suggest that Shi'ites, many from poorer rural areas, lack a work ethic and have too many children.
Shi'ites, many proud of having worked hard for university educations and qualifications since they cannot rely on getting government jobs, have their own stereotypes about Sunnis and the ruling family's Bedouin origins.
"Sunnis are not used to suffering. They don't want to do manual labour jobs. They just want to put on their ghutra (headscarf) and play cards," said one young Shi'ite woman in a coffee shop in a mainly Shi'ite neighbourhood.
Sunni clerics and government officials assert with apparent conviction that opposition leaders had been in contact with Iranian officials and ultimately owe fealty to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- even though Iran's novelty of clerical rule is questioned by most Shi'ites around the world.
One even suggested opposition leaders dragged their feet in talks with the Crown Prince during the unrest because they were expecting the return of the Shi'ite Hidden Imam, who disappeared in 9th-century Iraq and in whose stead Khamenei rules.
Munira Fakhro, a Sunni sociology professor from the secular opposition group Waad, said the accusations about Iran were implausible. "It's a scapegoat because they (Bahrain's rulers) don't want democracy," she told Reuters at her home in Riffa.
"Sunni fear of Shi'ites has accumulated over time and they (authorities) have let that fear grow more. And now Sunnis are really afraid that the Shi'ites will come and kill them."
While reformers in government launched dialogue with opposition parties and defended the right to peaceful protest, hardliners activated state media and Sunni clerics to depict the protest movement as sectarian, Fakhro says.
Diplomats say they were unwittingly helped in this by opposition radicals who announced on March 8 their desire to transform the monarchy -- seen by minority Sunnis as their chief safeguard -- into a republic, and by activists who staged protests outside royal palaces and government offices.
Sunnis interpreted some of the protesters' slogans as direct threats. "When they said 'get out', Sunnis felt they meant them in general," said Taher Mohammed, a Sunni writer, referring to the slogan 'irhal' which has been used around the Arab world.
Fayyad al-Fayyad, a Sunni sitting in a cafe known as a Sunni gathering place, said a March 5 march to royal palaces in Riffa crossed another red line. "Riffa is a purely Sunni place. The crown prince said they could stay at the Pearl Roundabout -- we never went to them, so why did they want to come to us?"
Sunnis who joined the protests have been targeted, Fakhro suspects, because they do not fit the ruling family's preferred narrative of a Shi'ite opposition hostile to Sunnis.
She points out damage to her wall and front door that she said was the work of Sunni vigilantes who attacked her home.
Some Shi'ites also turned to violence during the protests, assaulting naturalised Sunnis..
A Sunni ex-army captain who gave a speech at the protests at Pearl Roundabout, Mohammed Buflasa, remains in detention after serving a two-month sentence for unlicenced political activity.
"The protests were not sectarian in the beginning. Even if it became sectarian among some groups, they do not represent all Shi'ites," his brother Rashid Buflasa said.
Fakhro said post-independence Bahrain has experienced socio-economic shifts that have overturned traditional views among the communities.
Shi'ites were once seen as simple villagers and Sunnis were an urban elite deriving benefits from close links to the royal court. Bahrain, despite its rifts, is now more complicated.
"These clashes happen every 20 or 30 years or so, but now things have really changed between rural and city dwellers," she said. "The urbanised went to live in the gardens and the rural Shi'ites came to Manama." (Editing by Alistair Lyon)