NUWAIDRAT, Bahrain (AP) — Volunteers slowly rebuilding a new mosque from the wreckage of its 950-year-old predecessor in Bahrain have two tasks: One group works while others watch for a return of security forces who drove bulldozers through its walls last year.
In Bahrain's fractured society — with 16 months of nonstop clashes and tensions between the Sunni monarchy and protesters from the kingdom's Shiite majority — even relaying bricks from a toppled mosque wall can be viewed as a politically charged act.
"I was born here and will die on this land," said Mohammed Jaffer, a 17-year-old student who was among the ad hoc crews this week working at the Imam Hadi Mosque in the central Bahraini town of Nuwaidrat. "We deserve to fight for our dignity and not live as a slave in a feudal state."
The demolition of dozens of Shiite mosques and other religious gathering places remains one of the most sensitive issues amid an array of grievances by Bahrain's Shiites, who claim they are relegated to second-class status by the Western-backed Sunni dynasty. Their current uprising, which began in February 2011 and was inspired by the Arab Spring, has hardened into a showdown over the legitimacy of the ruling system that has left the island nation deeply divided.
The latest blow came Thursday with a court sentencing nine doctors and nurses to prison for up to five years after being convicted in a retrial of aiding the protests. Fifteen-year sentences also were upheld on two doctors who fled Bahrain.
Michael Posner, assistant U.S. secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, told reporters in Bahrain's capital Manama that Washington was "deeply disappointed" by the convictions and urged all sides to find ways to open dialogue or risk even more unrest in the strategic nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
"Dialogue has never been more urgent, as polarization in Bahrain society increases and the social fabric becomes more frayed," he said.
On Friday, Bahrain's police chief, Maj. Gen. Tariq al-Hassan, said "highly explosive" bomb-making material was uncovered in raids on several locations. Several bombings in the past month have injured security forces.
Bahrain's leaders have offered a range of concessions, including giving more powers to the elected parliament, but Shiite groups say it falls short of demands for the monarchy to give up its near total control of government power and appointments.
The ruined Shiite mosques across Bahrain also symbolize some of the core perceptions that make Bahrain one of the most diplomatically complex Middle East flashpoints for the West.
Bahrain's leadership claims that Shiite power Iran is encouraging the challenges to its authority. Also on Bahrain's side are all the Gulf Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, which sent in troops to aid the Bahraini monarchy last year and now backs a proposals for even closer union.
Although there is no direct evidence of Iranian involvement in Bahrain, it's a potential threat that resonates deeply with the West. The U.S. and allies also are cautious not to unsettle their critical relations in the Gulf by pushing too hard over Bahrain, where more than 50 people have died in the unrest.
Meanwhile, Bahrain's Shiites — accounting for about 70 percent of the more than half-million citizens — are increasingly critical of the U.S. for what they see as abandoning their cause to preserve important ties with Gulf rulers. The razed mosques have become a political backdrop with groups sometimes holding Friday prayers in the rubble.