Police in Bahrain Clear Protest Site in

Andrea Bruce for The New York Times
Pearl Square was nearly emptied of protesters after a crackdown
by police. More Photos »
February 17, 2011

Police in Bahrain Clear Protest Site in

Early Morning Raid

By MICHAEL SLACKMAN and NADIM
AUDI
MANAMA, Bahrain — Without warning, hundreds of heavily armed riot police
officers rushed into Pearl Square here early Thursday, firing tear gas and
concussion grenades at the thousands of demonstrators who were sleeping there as
part of a widening protest against the nation’s absolute monarchy.
Men, women and young children ran screaming, choking and collapsing.
The square was filled with the crack of tear gas canisters and the wail of
ambulances rushing people to the hospital. Teams of plainclothes police officers
carrying shotguns swarmed through the area, but it was unclear if they used the
weapons to subdue the crowd.
“There was a fog of war,” said Mohammed Ibrahim as he took refuge in a nearby
gas station. He was barefoot, had lost his wallet and had marks on his leg where
he said he had been beaten. “There were children, forgive them.”
At least two people were killed in the mayhem, according to witnesses at a
nearby hospital and news agency reports. Many people were injured in the chaos —
trampled, beaten or suffocated by the tear gas.
The unrest posed another diplomatic challenge to the United States as it
struggles with how to respond to largely peaceful movements against entrenched
rulers. Bahrain has long been a
strategically important American ally, hosting the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Only hours before  Thursday’s crackdown on the protests, the square had been
transformed from a symbol of the nation — anchored by a towering monument to its
pearl-diving history — into a symbol of the fight for democracy and social
justice that has been rocking autocratic governments all across the Middle East.
Tens of thousands of people had poured into the square during the day, setting
up tents, giving rousing speeches and pressing their demands for a
constitutional democracy.
By 11 p.m. Wednesday, the square had started to quiet down. Young men sat
smoking water pipes, while young children slept on blankets or in tents. At 2:45
a.m. Thursday, the camp was quiet, those awake still reflecting on the
remarkable events of the day. And then, the blue flashing lights of police
vehicles began to appear, encircling the square. At first there were four
vehicles, then dozens and then hundreds.
Wearing white crash helmets, the police rushed the square.
“Everybody was sleeping, they came from upside and down,” said Zeinab Ali,
22, as she and a group of women huddled, crying and angry, in small nearby
market.
The protest had begun on Monday, when young organizers called for a “Day of
Rage,” modeled on the uprisings in Egypt or Tunisia. On that day, the police
were unforgiving, refusing to allow demonstrators to gather, overwhelming them
with tear gas and other rounds. One young man was killed, shot in the back by
the police. A day later, another young man, a mourner, also was killed, shot in
the back.
That galvanized the opposition and under pressure from the United States, the
king withdrew his police force from the streets.
For a time, it appeared that change might be coming quickly to Bahrain, a
tiny nation in the Persian Gulf ruled for more than 200 years by the Khalifa
family. The royal family is Sunni while the majority of the nation’s 600,000
citizens are Shiite.
The Shiite community has long complained of being marginalized and
discriminated against.
On Wednesday, as the protesters gained momentum, Shiite opposition leaders
issued assurances that they were not being influenced by Iran and were not
interested in transforming the monarchy into a religious theocracy. Those
charges are frequently leveled against them by Sunni leaders here.
Still, the leaders of the largest Shiite political party, Al Wefaq, announced
that they would not return to Parliament until King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa
agreed to transform the nation into a constitutional democracy with an elected
government.
By evening, crowds spilled out of the square, tied up roads for as far as the
eye could see and united in a celebration of empowerment unparalleled for the
country’s Shiites.
“They say you are few and you cannot make changes,” said Ali Ahmed, 26,
drawing cheers from the crowd as he spoke from a platform. “We say, ‘We can, and
we will.’”
“The people want the fall of the regime,” the crowds chanted on the darkened
square, their words echoing off the towering buildings nearby.
Late at night, thousands of people remained, hoping to establish a
symbolically important base of protest in much the same way Egyptians took over
Tahrir Square to launch their successful revolution against Hosni Mubarak.
But the leadership’s newfound tolerance for dissent was a mirage.
Bahrain, while a small Persian Gulf state, has considerable strategic value
to the United States as the base of its Fifth Fleet, which American officials
rely upon to assure the continued flow of oil from the Persian Gulf to the West
and to protect the interests of the United States in a 20-nation area that
includes vital waterways like the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz. The base
is home to 2,300 military personnel, most of them in the Navy.
United States military officials said Wednesday they were taking no extra
security precautions at the American base in Manama, which is not close to the
protests, and that there had been no threat to United States forces in the
region. “The U.S. is not being targeted at all in any of these protests,” an
American military spokeswoman, Jennifer Stride, said in a telephone interview on
Wednesday.
Bahrain has been a politically volatile nation for generations.
The Khalifa family has ruled since the 18th century and has long had tense
relations with the Shiite majority. The king recruits foreigners to serve as
police rather than trust Shiite citizens to wear uniforms and carry
weapons.
In 2001, voters in Bahrain overwhelmingly approved a national charter to lead
the way toward democratic changes. But a year later, the king imposed a
Constitution by decree that Shiite leaders say has diluted the rights in the
charter and blocked them from achieving a majority in the Parliament.
Before the events in Egypt and Tunisia, the traditional opposition made
little progress in pushing its demands. But the success of those popular,
peaceful uprisings inspired a change of tactics here, and young people led a
call for a Bahraini “Day of Rage” on Feb. 14.
By nightfall Wednesday at Pearl Square, a feeling of absolute celebration
took hold, a block party in the square. If the afternoons belonged to
disaffected young men, the evenings belonged to the whole community.
BBC Arabic was projected on the side
of the pearl monument, making Pearl Square seem like a living room where
protesters sat together, relaxed and watched TV while sipping tea. At least
until the police arrived.
As the sun rose over the square, the night’s events came into sharp focus.
The entire field was trampled and crushed. Canvas tents and a speaker’s podium
lay crushed. The sound of ambulances continued to wail, and a helicopter circled
the square.
J. David Goodman contributed reporting from New York, and Elisabeth Bumiller
from Washington.

Copyright. 2011. The New York Times Company. All Rights
Reserved

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