MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Protesters demanding sweeping political reforms from Bahrain‘s rulers held their ground Wednesday in an Egypt-style occupation of the capital’s landmark square, staging a third day of demonstrations that have brought unprecedented pressure in one of Washington’s most strategic allies in the Gulf.
Security forces have pulled back sharply — apparently on orders to ease tensions — after clashes that left at least two people dead and dozens injured. Police helicopters, however, flew low over a major funeral procession for one of those killed in which mourners called him a “martyr” and pledged more protests in the island nation, home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
Thousands of people spent the night in a makeshift tent camp in Manama's Pearl Square, which has been swarmed by demonstrators. One demonstrator used a bullhorn to urge protesters to remain until their demands are met, as the Arab wave for change takes hold in the Gulf.
The protests began Monday as a cry for the country’s Sunni monarchy to loosen its grip, including handpicking most top government posts, and open more opportunities for the country’s majority Shi’ites, who long have complained of being blocked from decision-making roles.
But the uprising’s demands steadily have reached further. Many protesters are calling for the government to provide more jobs and better housing and free all political detainees. Increasingly, protesters also are chanting slogans to wipe away the entire ruling dynasty that has led Bahrain for more than 200 years.
Social networking websites were abuzz with calls to press ahead with the protests as well as insults from presumed government backers calling the demonstrators traitors and agents of Shi'ite powerhouse Iran.
As night fell Wednesday, the mood suggested protesters were settling in for the long haul. People sipped tea, snacked on donated food and smoked apple- and grape-flavored tobacco from water pipes. The men and women mainly sat separately — the women a sea of black in their traditional dress.
The leadership of the protesters is still unclear and disorganized. A few scuffles have broken out between some of the people in the main area near the speakers’ platform.
Prayers were held in the Shi'ite manner, and an imam made a sermon about the strength of the Bahraini youth.
“This square is a trust in your hands, and so will you whittle away this trust or keep fast?” the imam said. “So be careful and be concerned for your country and remember that the regime will try to rip this country from your hand, but if we must leave it in coffins, then so be it!”
“We are not looking for a religious government like Iran‘s, but we demand a civil government” that represents Shi’ites and Sunnis, he told a news conference.
The group, Al Wefaq, has 18 seats in the 40-member parliament, but it is boycotting the chamber to protest the violence against demonstrators.
Bahrain‘s state TV gave limited reports on the protests.
The pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera, founded by the emir in nearby Qatar, also gave sporadic coverage. That compares with nearly round-the-clock attention to Egypt’s turmoil, suggesting worry by Qatar’s Sunni rulers about the unrest coming to their doorstep.
“I call on all sides to exercise restraint and refrain from violence,” Mr. Burt said.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday the Obama administration is “very concerned” about violence against protesters.
“The United States welcomes the government of Bahrain‘s statements that it will investigate these deaths and that it will take legal action against any unjustified use of force by Bahraini security forces,” Mr. Crowley said. “We urge that it follow through on these statements as quickly as possible.”
Although Bahrain is sandwiched between two of OPEC’s heavyweights, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it has limited oil resources and depends heavily on its role as a regional financial hub and playground for Saudis, who can drive over a causeway to enjoy Bahrain‘s Western-style bars, hotels and beaches.
On Tuesday, Bahrain‘s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa made a rare nationwide TV address to offer condolences for the deaths, pledge an investigation into the killings and promised to push ahead with reforms that include loosening state controls on the media and Internet.
But the funeral procession Wednesday for a 31-year-old man, Fadhel al-Matrook, quickly turned political. Mourners chanted for the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Sheik Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa.
Al-Matrook was killed Tuesday as police tried to disperse people gathered for the funeral march of the first victim to die in the unrest. Both were Shi’ites, feeding the resentment in a community that represents 70 percent of Bahrain‘s 500,000 citizens but long has alleged systematic discrimination.
A wave of arrests last year against Shi’ite activists touched off riots and protest marches. But authorities are moving ahead with a highly sensitive trial of 25 Shi’ites accused of plotting against the ruling system. The next court session is scheduled for Feb. 24.
In the past week, Bahrain‘s rulers have tried to defuse calls for reform by promising nearly $2,700 for each family and pledging to loosen state controls on the media.
Similar concessions have been made by leaders in the Gulf to try to pre-empt protests.
In Oman, ruling Sultan Qaboos Bin Said announced Wednesday an increase in the minimum monthly salary for private-sector workers from 140 rials ($365) to 200 rials ($520). Last month, the sultan met with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to discuss the growing political unrest in the Arab world.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague visited Bahrain for talks last week.
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