- Associated Press - Thursday, February 17, 2011

MANAMA, Bahrain — Troops and tanks locked down the capital of this tiny Gulf kingdom after riot police swinging clubs and firing tear gas smashed into demonstrators, many of them sleeping, in a pre-dawn assault Thursday that uprooted their protest camp demanding political change. Medical officials said four people were killed.

Hours after the attack on Manama’s main Pearl Square, the military announced a ban on gatherings, saying on state TV that it had “key parts” of the capital under its control.

After several days of holding back, the island nation’s Sunni rulers unleashed a heavy crackdown, trying to stamp out the first anti-government upheaval to reach the Arab states of the Persian Gulf since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In the surprise assault, police tore down protesters’ tents, beating men and women inside and blasting some with shotgun sprays of birdshot.

It was a sign of how deeply the Sunni monarchy — and other Arab regimes in the Gulf — fear the repercussions of a prolonged wave of protests, led by members of the country’s Shi’ite majority but also joined by growing numbers of discontented Sunnis.


Tiny Bahrain is a pillar of Washington’s military framework in the region. It hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which is a critical counterbalance to Iran. Bahrain’s rulers and their Arab allies depict any sign of unrest among their Shiite populations as a move by neighboring Shi’ite-majority Iran to expand its clout in the region.

But the assault may only further enrage protesters, who before the attack had called for large rallies Friday. In the wake of the bloodshed, angry demonstrators chanted “the regime must go” and burned pictures of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa outside the emergency ward at Salmaniyah hospital, the main state medical facility.

“We are even angrier now. They think they can clamp down on us, but they have made us angrier,” Makki Abu Taki, whose son was killed in the assault, shouted in the hospital morgue. “We will take to the streets in larger numbers and honor our martyrs. The time for Al Khalifa has ended.”

The Obama administration expressed alarm over the violent crackdown. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Bahrain’s foreign minister to register Washington’s “deep concern” and urge restraint. Similar criticism came from Britain and the European Union.

Salmaniyah hospital was thrown into chaos by a stream of dozens of wounded from Pearl Square, brought in by ambulances and private cars. At least one of the dead was peppered with bloody holes from pellets fired from police shotguns. Nurses rushed in men and women on stretchers, their heads bleeding, arms in casts, faces bruised. At the entrance, women wrapped in black robes embraced each other and wept.

The capital Manama was effectively shut down Thursday. For the first time in the crisis, tanks rolled into the streets and military checkpoints were set up as army patrols circulated. The Interior Ministry warned Bahrainis to stay off the streets. Banks and other key institutions did not open, and workers stayed home, unable or to afraid to pass through checkpoints to get to their jobs.

Barbed wire and police cars with flashing blue lights encircled Pearl Square, the site of anti-government rallies since Monday. The square was turned into a field of flattened tents and the strewn belongings of the protesters who had camped there — pieces of clothing and boxes of food.

Banners lay trampled on the ground, littered with broken glass, tear gas canisters and debris. A body covered in a white sheet lay in a pool of blood on the side of a road nearby.

Demonstrators had been camping out for days around the landmark square’s 300-foot monument featuring a giant pearl, a testament to the island’s pearl-diving past.

The protesters’ demands have two main objectives: force the ruling Sunni monarchy to give up its control over top government posts and all critical decisions, and address deep grievances held by the country’s majority Shi’ites who make up 70 percent of Bahrain’s 500,000 citizens but claim they face systematic discrimination and poverty and are effectively blocked from key roles in public service and the military.

Shi’ites have clashed with police before in protests over their complaints. But the growing numbers of Sunnis joining the latest protests have come as a surprise to authorities, said Simon Henderson, a Gulf specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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