Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bahrain protesters take control of main square

By BRIAN MURPHY, Associated Press Feb. 15, 2011

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Thousands of protesters poured into a main
square in Bahrain's capital Tuesday in an Egypt-style rebellion that
sharply escalated pressure on authorities as the Arab push for change
gripped the Gulf for the first time.

Security forces have battled demonstrators calling for political reforms
and greater freedoms over two days, leading to the deaths of two
protesters and the main opposition group vowing to freeze its work in
parliament in protest.

In a clear sign of concern over the widening crisis, Bahrain's King Hamad
bin Isa Al Khalifa made a rare national TV address, offering condolences
for the deaths, pledging an investigation into the killings and promising
to push ahead with reforms, which include loosening state controls on the
media and Internet.

"We extend our condolences to the parents of the dear sons who died
yesterday and today. We pray that they are inspired by the Almighty's
patience, solace and tranquility," said the king, who had previously
called for an emergency Arab summit to discuss the growing unrest.

As the crowds surged into the Pearl Square in the capital of Manama,
security forces appeared to hold back. But key highways were blocked in an
apparent attempt to choke off access to the vast traffic circle — which
protesters quickly renamed "Nation's Square" and erected banners such as
"Peaceful" that were prominent in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of
protests there.

The dramatic move Tuesday came just hours after a second protester died in
clashes with police in the strategic island kingdom, which is home to the
U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

Oppositions groups aren't calling for the ruling Sunni monarchy to be
ousted, but they do want an end to its grip on key decisions and
government posts.

Other demands — listed on a poster erected in the square — included the
release of all political prisoners, more jobs and housing, an elected
Cabinet and the replacement of longtime prime minister, Sheik Khalifa bin
Salman Al Khalifa.

Click image to see photos of protests in Bahrain

AP/Hasan Jamali

The nation's majority Shiites — about 70 percent of the population of some
500,000_ have long complained of discrimination and being blackballed from
important state jobs.

Many in the square waved Bahraini flags and chanted: "No Sunnis, no
Shiites. We are all Bahrainis." It also appeared they were planning for
the long haul. Some groups carried in tents and sought generators to set
up under a nearly 300-foot (90-meter) monument cradling a giant white
pearl-shaped ball symbolizing the country's heritage as a pearl diving

Bahrain is one of the most politically volatile nations in the Middle
East's wealthiest corner despite having one of the few elected parliaments
and some of the most robust civil society groups. A crackdown on perceived
dissent last year touched off weeks of riots and clashes in Shiite
villages, and an ongoing trial in Bahrain accuses 25 Shiites of plotting
against the country's leadership.

A prolonged showdown could draw in the region's two biggest rivals: Saudi
Arabia, as close allies of Bahrain's Sunni monarchy, and Iran, whose
hard-liners have spoken in support of the nation's Shiite majority.

Bahrain is also an economic weakling compared with the staggering energy
riches of Gulf neighbors such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which can afford
far more generous social benefits. Bahrain's oil reserves are small and
its role as the region's international financial hub have been greatly
eclipsed by Dubai.

One protester, 24-year-old Hussein Asamahiji, echoed the complaints from
Tunisia and Egypt: a lack of jobs and allegations that the ruling elite
monopolizes the best opportunities.

"We simply want the chance at a better future," he said. "Egypt showed
it's possible."

The bloodshed already has brought sharp denunciations from the largest
Shiite political bloc, which suspended its participation in parliament,
and could threaten the nation's gradual pro-democracy reforms that have
given Shiites a greater political voice.

The second day of turmoil began after police tried to disperse up to
10,000 mourners gathering at a hospital parking lot to begin a funeral
procession for Ali Abdulhadi Mushaima, 21, who died in Monday's marches.

Officials at Bahrain's Salmaniya Medical Complex said a 31-year-old man
became the second fatality when he died of injuries from birdshot fired
during the melee in the hospital's parking lot. The officials spoke on
condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to

After the clash, riot police eventually withdrew and allowed the massive
funeral cortege for Mushaima to proceed from the main state-run medical
facility in Manama. He was killed Monday during clashes with security
forces trying to halt marches to demand greater freedoms and political
rights. At least 25 people were injured in the barrage of rubber bullets,
birdshot and tear gas, relatives said.

The main Shiite opposition group, Al Wefaq, denounced the "bullying
tactics and barbaric policies pursued by the security forces" and said it
was suspending its participation in parliament, where it holds 18 of the
40 seats.

The declaration falls short of pulling out the group's lawmakers, which
would spark a full-scale political crisis. But Al Wefaq warned that it
could take more steps if violence persists against marchers staging the
first major rallies in the Gulf since uprisings toppled long-ruling
regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed alarm from
Moscow at what she described as authorities' excessive use of force

"I have been urging the authorities to curb the excesses of the security
apparatus and to undertake serious investigations into allegations of
torture and abuse," she said.

"I urge the authorities to immediately cease the use of disproportionate
force against peaceful protestors and to release all peaceful
demonstrators who have been arrested," Pillay added.

A statement from Bahrain's interior minister, Lt. Gen. Rashid bin Abdulla
Al Khalifa, expressed "sincere condolences and deep sympathy" to
Mushaima's family. He expanded on the king's pledge: stressing that the
deaths will be investigated and charges would be filed if authorities
determined excessive force was used against the protesters.

But that's unlikely to appease the protesters, whose "day of rage" Monday
coincided with major anti-government demonstrations in Iran and Yemen.

In the past week, Bahrain's rulers have attempted to defuse calls for
reform by promising nearly $2,700 for each family and pledging to loosen
state controls on the media.

State media reported that the king telephoned the head of Egypt's ruling
military council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, on Tuesday. No further
details were given, but Bahrain had earlier appealed for an emergency
summit of Arab leaders to discuss the widening protests.

Bahrain's ruling Sunni dynasty also has extremely close ties with the
leadership in Saudi Arabia, which is connected to Bahrain by a causeway.
Bahrain has given citizenship to Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and across the
region to bolster its ranks against the country's Shiite majority.

Bahrain's Sunni leaders point to parliamentary elections as a symbol of
political openness. But many Sunnis in Bahrain also are highly suspicious
of Shiite activists, claiming they seek to undermine the state and have
cultural bonds with Shiite heavyweight Iran.

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