- Associated Press - Saturday, February 19, 2011

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Thousands of singing and dancing protesters streamed back into Manama’s central Pearl Square on Saturday after Bahrain’s leaders withdrew tanks and riot police following two straight days of a bloody crackdown by security forces in the tiny monarchy.

The royal family, which was quick to use force earlier this week against demonstrators in the landmark square that has been the heart of the anti-government demonstrations, appeared to back away from further confrontation following international pressure from the West.

The demonstrators had emulated successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in attempting to bring political change to Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet — the centerpiece of Washington’s efforts to confront Iranian military influence in the region.

Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, appealed for calm and political dialogue in a brief address on state TV.

People circling through the square clapped, whistled and wept. Some wore white sheets symbolizing their readiness for martyrdom, while others carried Bahraini flags, flowers and signs that said “Peaceful.”

“We are victorious!” they chanted as they marched back into the square that has been the headquarters for their revolt against the Sunni monarchy in the predominantly Shiite island nation.

They also chanted: “The people want the removal of the regime.”

President Barack Obama discussed the situation with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, asking him to hold those responsible for the violence accountable. He said in a statement that Bahrain must respect the “universal rights” of its people and embrace “meaningful reform.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague also expressed his concern about “clearly unacceptable and horrifying” violence against demonstrators in Bahrain. He urged Bahraini authorities to hold accountable those responsible for the deaths in protests there and to halt the intimidation of journalists.

The crown prince has been delegated by the royal family to open a dialogue with the opposition.

“The sooner we return to calm, the sooner we can reach our goals,” Salman said. “Citizens of Bahrain, let’s work together with all political blocks to help return the security situation to normal so we can announce a day of mourning for those we’ve lost.”

The violence has already forced the cancellation of a lower-tier auto race in Bahrain that had been scheduled for this weekend. Formula One officials also are weighing whether to cancel the season-opening event in Bahrain on March 13 — a move that would be a huge blow to the nation’s prestige.

Ibrahim Sharif, head of the opposition Waad Society, said that pulling the armed forces off the streets of Manama was not enough and demanded guarantees that protesters can stage rallies without fear of being attacked. Waad is an umbrella group of protest factions.

Some of the protesters were wary of Bahrain’s leaders, despite the military withdrawal.

“Of course we don’t trust them,” said Ahmed al-Shaikh, a 23-year-old civil servant. “They will probably attack more and more, but we have no fear now.”

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