- 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.”

He questioned what kind of dialogue could proceed after the crackdown.

“How can we have trust? Now there is one demand: We want the whole government to step down,” he added.

Hassan Youssef, 33, called the crown prince’s speech “hypocritical and self-serving.”

“He is afraid for his Formula One contract and thinks by just telling us to calm down we will listen,” Youssef said. “We want the entire royal family to step aside. We don’t want to dialogue. They will most definitely attack us again, but let them — we are ready for our blood to spill again.”

Throngs of anti-government protesters took over the square earlier in the week, setting up a camp with tents and placards, but they were driven out by riot police in a deadly assault Thursday that killed five people and injured more than 200. The government then clamped down on Manama by sending the tanks and other armored vehicles into the streets around the square, putting up barbed wire and establishing checkpoints to deter gatherings.

On Friday, army units opened fire on marchers streaming toward the square. More than 50 people were injured in the second consecutive day of clashes.

Protesters who tried to march to the square Friday described a chaotic scene of tear gas clouds, bullets coming from many directions and people slipping in pools of blood as they sought cover. Some claimed the gunfire came from either helicopters or sniper nests.

The clash came hours after funeral mourners and worshippers at Friday prayers called for the toppling of the Western-allied monarchy. Some members of Bahrain’s Sunni ruling system worry that Shiite powerhouse Iran could use Bahrain’s majority Shiites as a further foothold in the region.

The cries against the king and his inner circle — at a main Shiite mosque and at burials for those killed when security forces attacked a protest camp in Pearl Square — reflected a sharp 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.

The mood, however, has turned toward defiance of the entire ruling system after the crackdown, which put the nation under emergency-style footing with military forces in key areas and checkpoints on main roads.

On Saturday morning, jubilant Bahrainis honked car horns, waved flags and flashed v-for-victory signs as the tanks moved away from the square. An Associated Press photographer saw a contingent of riot police who replaced the military forces fire tear gas at people celebrating the military withdrawal from the square and detain at least 10 people.

But the riot police then left their positions, got into vehicles and drove away to allow the thousands of cheering protesters to return to the square. The crown prince had said the police would maintain law and order on the streets after the military withdrawal.

It was not immediately clear if the tanks and other armored vehicles moved all the way back to military bases.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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