A Bahraini anti-government protester gestures in front of riot police on an overpass near Pearl roundabout Sunday 13 March 2011, in Manama, Bahrain. (AP)
A parliament group asked Bahrain's king on Monday to impose martial law after a month of unrest that has left the tiny Gulf nation sharply divided between minority Sunni Muslims backing the ruling system and Shia demanding sweeping changes.
There was no immediate response from Bahrain's monarch, but authorities have expressed increasing frustration that opposition groups have not accepted offers to open dialogue aimed at easing the crisis.
A military-run clampdown would risk further polarizing the strategic island kingdom _ home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet _ and send a chill through the many international banking and financial companies that use Bahrain as their Gulf hub.
The parliament bloc's statement, carried by the state-run Bahrain News Agency, asked for a three-month declaration of martial law and claimed "extremist movements" were trying to disrupt the country and push it toward sectarian conflict. The appeal also seeks a curfew and the dispatch of army units around the country.
The Alayam newspaper, which is closely alligned with the royal family, reported on its website Monday that forces from neighboring Gulf nations were expected to send reinforcements to Bahrain to bolster security forces.
No other details were given and the report could not be independently confirmed. Bahraini officials did not immediately comment.
Shia, who account for 70 percent of the population, have long complained of systematic discrimination by the Sunni dynasty that has ruled for more than two centuries.
The grievances include allegations of being blackballed from key government and security posts. They also strongly object to government policies that give citizenship and jobs to Sunnis from other Arab countries and South Asia as a way to offset the Shia' demographic edge.
The main opposition groups have called for the Sunni rulers to give up most of their powers to the elected parliament. But, as violence has deepened, many protesters now say they want to topple the entire royal family.
Bahrain's leadership is under intense pressure from other Gulf neighbors, particularly powerful Saudi Arabia, not to give ground.
The Gulf Sunni dynasties are fearful for their own fate as the Arab push for change rumbles through the oil-rich region. They also see any gains by Bahrain's Shia as a potential foothold for Shia heavyweight Iran to increase influence, including with Saudi Arabia's restive Shia minority in areas just over the causeway from Bahrain.
The parliament appeal comes a day after protesters blocked main highways to Bahrain's financial district and battles erupted on the campus of the main university, which has suspended classes indefinitely.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Bahrain on Saturday and urged leaders to quickly move on reforms. On the same day, Bahrain's Interior Ministry said the sectarian strife was threatening the "social fabric" of the nation.
It was not immediately clear whether Bahrain's depleted parliament would hold a session to discuss the appeal. The 40-seat chamber is left with only pro-government lawmakers after 18 opposition members resigned to protest violence against demonstrators.
The statement urged King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to take action "at this critical moment after the opposition parties refused all calls to restore calm and defuse tensions and engage in a multiparty national dialogue." On Sunday, Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa suggested authorities could consider harsher measures.
He said the nation has "witnessed tragic events" during a month of unprecedented political unrest. But he warned, "the right to security and safety is above all else." "Any legitimate claims must not be made at the expense of security and stability," Salman said in a televised speech.
The British and US governments issued notices urging their citizens in Bahrain to remain at home or try to avoid protest areas when traveling.
"Spontaneous demonstrations and violence are expected throughout the next several days," said the US advisory.