Bahrain security forces fire tear gas on protest

An Anti-government demonstrators run away after being attacked by Bahrani riot policemen at the Pearl roundabout, in Manama, Bahrain, early Thursday morning, Feb. 17, 2011. Riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets stormed a landmark square occupied by anti-government protesters Thursday, driving out demonstrators and destroying a makeshift encampment that had become the hub for demands to bring sweeping political changes to the kingdom. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
February 18, 2011 10:29:48 AM PST
Soldiers fired tear gas and shot heavy weapons into the air as thousands of protest marchers defied a government ban and streamed toward the landmark square that had been the symbolic center of the uprising against the Gulf nation's leaders.

Hospital officials said at least 20 people were injured, some seriously. Ambulance sirens were heard throughout central Manama a day after riot police swept through the protest encampment in Pearl Square, killing at least five people.

An Associated Press cameraman saw army units shooting anti-aircraft weapons above the protesters in apparent warning shots and attempts to drive them back from security cordons about 200 yards (200 meters) from the square.

The clash came just hours after funeral mourners and worshippers at Friday prayers called for the toppling of the Western-allied monarchy in the tiny island nation that is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

The cries against the king and his inner circle - at a main Shiite mosque and at burials for those killed in Thursday's crushing attack - reflect an important escalation of the political uprising, which began with calls to weaken the Sunni monarchy's power and address claims of discrimination against the Shiite majority in the tiny island nation.

The mood, however, appears to have turned toward defiance of the entire ruling system after the brutal crackdown on a protest encampment in Bahrain's capital, Manama, which left at least five dead, more than 230 injured and put the nation under emergency-style footing with military forces in key areas and checkpoints on main roads.

"The regime has broken something inside of me. ... All of these people gathered today have had something broken in them," said Ahmed Makki Abu Taki at the funeral for his 23-year-old brother, Mahmoud, who was killed in the pre-dawn sweep through the protest camp in Manama's Pearl Square. "We used to demand for the prime minister to step down, but now our demand is for the ruling family to get out."

The White House has expressed "strong displeasure" about the rising tensions in Bahrain. The 5th Fleet is the centerpiece of the Pentagon's efforts to confront growing Iranian military ambitions in the region.

At a Shiite mosque in the village of Diraz, an anti-government hotbed, imam Isa Qassim called the Pearl Square assault a "massacre" and thousands of worshippers chanted: "The regime must go."

In a sign of Bahrain's deep divisions, government loyalists filled Manama's Grand Mosque to hear words of support for the monarchy and take part in a post-sermon march protected by security forces. Many arrived with Bahraini flags draped over the traditional white robes worn by Gulf men. Portraits of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa were distributed.

"We must protect our country," said Adnan al-Qattan, the cleric leading prayers. "We are living in dangerous times."

He also denounced attempts to "open the doors to evil and foreign influences" - an apparent reference to suspicions that Shiite powerhouse Iran could take advantages of any gains by Bahrain's Shiites, who account for about 70 percent of the population.

The pro-government gathering had many nonnative Bahrainis, including South Asians and Sunni Arabs from around the region. Shiite have long complained of policies to give Sunnis citizenship and jobs, including posts in security forces, to offset the Shiite majority.

Outside a Shiite village mosque, several thousand mourners gathered to bury three of the men killed in the crackdown. The first body, covered in black velvet, was passed hand to hand toward a grave as it was being dug.

Amid the Shiite funeral rites, many chanted for the removal of king and the entire Sunni dynasty that has ruled for more than two centuries in Bahrain - the first nation in the Gulf to feel the pressure for changes sweeping the Arab world.

"The government has shaken something inside us all and we have lost all trust in it," Mohamed Ali, 40, a civil servant, said as he choked back tears. "Our demands were peaceful and simple at first. We wanted the prime minister to step down. Now the demands are harsher and have reached the pinnacle of the pyramid. We want the whole government to fall."

There were no security forces near the mosque on the island of Sitra, where three of those killed had lived.

But in Manama, soldiers guarded the capital's main areas and placed roadblocks and barbed wire around Pearl Square and other potential gathering sites. Work crews were busy trying to cover up the protest graffiti.

In another funeral in the Shiite village of Karzkan, opposition leaders urged protesters to keep up their fight but not to seek revenge.

"We know they have weapons and they are trying to drag us into violence," said Sheik Ali Salman, the leader of the largest Shiite party, Al Wefaq, whose 18 lawmakers have resigned in protest from the 40-seat parliament to deepen the political crisis.

On Thursday, Bahrain's leaders banned public gatherings to try to keep the protest movement from re-igniting. But the underlying tensions in Bahrain run even deeper than the rebellions for democracy that began two months ago in Tunisia and later swept away Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and is challenging old-guard regimes in Libya and Yemen.

In the government's first public comment on the crackdown, Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa said Thursday it was necessary because the demonstrators were "polarizing the country" and pushing it to the "brink of the sectarian abyss."

Speaking to reporters after an emergency meeting with his Gulf counterparts in Manama to discuss the unrest, he called the violence "regrettable," said the deaths would be investigated and added that authorities chose to clear the square by force at 3 a.m. - when the fewest number of people would be in the square - "to minimize any possibility of casualties."

Many of the protesters were sleeping and said they received little warning of the assault. More than 230 people were injured, some seriously.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Washington must expand efforts for political and economic reforms in places such as Bahrain. "There is an urgency to this," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In the midst of the protests, WikiLeaks has released new State Department cables detailing basic Bahraini foreign policy and concerns about regional powerhouse Iran. One intriguing cable also consists of questions sent by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton asking the embassy to evaluate the leadership potential of the country's top princes.

The cable includes questions about relationships between the princes, their influence on government, views of the United States and whether any of them have histories of drug or alcohol use. There is no record of any answers.

Elsewhere, the European Union and Human Rights Watch urged Bahraini authorities to order security forces to stop attacks on peaceful protesters.

The protesters had called for the monarchy to give up its control over top government posts and all critical decisions and address deep grievances by Shiites, who claim they face systematic discrimination and poverty and are effectively blocked from key roles in public service and the military.

Shiites have clashed with police before in protests over their complaints, including serious confrontations in the 1990s. But the growing numbers of Sunnis joining the latest demonstrations have come as a surprise to authorities, said Simon Henderson, a Gulf specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"The Sunnis seem to increasingly dislike what is a very paternalistic government," he said, adding that the crackdown was "symptomatic" of Gulf nations' response to crises. "As far as the Gulf rulers are concerned, there's only one proper way with this and that is: be tough and be tough early."

The Bahrain violence forced the cancellation of a lower-tier open-wheel race in Bahrain for Friday and Saturday, and leaves in doubt the March 13 season-opening Formula One race at the same track.

Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone said he will decide next week whether to proceed with the race.

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Barbara Surk in Manama and Brian Murphy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.


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