Michael Slackman, Sanhati
MANAMA, Bahrain — Thousands of jubilant protesters surged back into the symbolic heart of Bahrain on Saturday as the government withdrew its security forces, calling for calm after days of violent crackdowns.
It was a remarkable turn after a week of protests that had shifted by the hour between joy and fear, euphoric surges of people power followed by bloody military crackdowns, as the monarchy struggled to calibrate a response to an uprising whose counterparts have toppled other governments in the region.
“All Bahrain is happy today,” said Jasim al-Haiki, 24, as he cheered the crowds in the central Pearl Square, aflutter with Bahraini flags. “These are Bahrainis. They do what they say they will do!”
The shift in this tiny Persian Gulf nation, a strategic American ally, was at least a temporary victory for the Shiite protesters, who had rejected a call to negotiate from Bahrain’s Sunni monarch until the authorities pulled the military off the streets.
But the events here were being watched with trepidation in neighboring Saudi Arabia, an adjacent Sunni monarchy with a restive Shiite population, and rippling across the region, where an extraordinary few weeks of antigovernment protests have ricocheted from northwest Africa to the Middle East.
Antigovernment demonstrations erupted again on Saturday in Libya, Algeria and Yemen, with each of those governments turning to violence to stop the protests. The worst carnage was in Libya, where security forces fired on protesters in Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city, killing dozens and pushing the death toll after three days of demonstrations to over 100.
In Algiers, protesters were quickly routed by hundreds of baton-wielding police officers. In Yemen, after both sides clashed in a hail of bottles, shoes and rocks, government supporters opened fire on antigovernment demonstrators, wounding at least four.
In Bahrain, the day started out with a lull, as both sides appeared to have been rattled by the violence of the past week, in which at least seven people were killed. The leaders of the major opposition parties called off the protests for Saturday, telling the public to stay home in an effort to lower the temperature.
But in what appeared to be a measure of who controls the movement now, the people ignored their ostensible leaders. Marchers set out from villages and the city center and by midday converged on Pearl Square.
The police met them with tear gas and rubber bullets. Young men collapsed in the road and others ran for cover, but people kept coming.
The police fired again.
Then the government blinked, perhaps sensing that the only way to calm a spiral of violence that claimed more lives with each passing day was to cede the square to the protesters.
The police left so suddenly and so completely that it took a minute for the protesters, still rubbing the tear gas out of their eyes, to realize they once again controlled the square.
By early evening, tens of thousands of people were pouring into the square, waving flags, some dropping to the ground to pray, and others shouting congratulations to each other. Marching past pools of blood on the road, they savored a moment of bittersweet jubilation, a mix of disbelief and sheer joy that they had prevailed, tempered with sadness for those who had been killed.
“Of course we are happy,” said Hassan al-Freidi, 53. “But I want to tell you: not yet. Today we’re mourning and honoring our martyrs; it is about joy and mourning. But it’ll only be about joy when we get our rights. And I know this day will come. Bullets do not scare us.”
The protesters won the battle on Saturday, although it was still not clear where it would all lead. The government had relinquished the square before, on Wednesday, only to return with a deadly assault on Thursday. On Friday, the army opened fire on a group of about 1,000 peaceful demonstrators trying to walk into the square.
The varying responses appeared to reflect turmoil within the government as it grapples with the uprising. The confrontation on Friday, with the Bahrain Defense Forces firing on Bahraini citizens in daylight, seemed to be the shock that forced a change in the government’s approach.
On Saturday, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the king’s son and deputy commander of the military, ordered troops to leave the square.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa had ordered the prince, seen as perhaps the most moderate government leader, to open a dialogue with the protesters. But if the killings had softened the government’s posture, they also hardened the mood of the protesters.
The withdrawal of forces from Pearl Square had been the opposition’s precondition for negotiations, but by Saturday the line appeared to have shifted. A movement that began as a call for immediate democratic reform seemed set on nothing less than the removal of the king, or at least, his uncle, the prime minister.
The most common chants heard in the square, where protesters appeared to be setting up a permanent encampment on Saturday night, were “Death to Khalifa!” and “The people want the government to fall.”
In Washington on Saturday, Thomas E. Donilon, President Obama’s national security adviser, telephoned Crown Prince Salman to discuss the Bahraini government’s latest response to the demonstrations. Mr. Donilon’s call came a day after the White House said Mr. Obama had spoken with the king on Friday evening, urging the government to show restraint, especially against peaceful protesters, and pressing for meaningful reform.
In the wake of this week’s violence in Manama, Britain has suspended licenses for arms exports to Bahrain, which includes tear gas and rubber bullets. United States security assistance to Bahrain increased to $20.8 million in 2010 from $5.3 million in 2008. Last year about $1.1 million of the aid went for counterterrorism assistance, including aid to the police and military forces that are battling the protesters. A State Department official said Saturday that suspending security assistance was a possibility, but was not under active consideration.
The longstanding root of the tension here is the sectarian divide, a Sunni royal family ruling over a Shiite majority. For years, the Shiites have complained of discrimination in housing, employment, education and governance.
That rift makes Bahrain, an archipelago about the size of Fort Worth, a potential regional powder keg. The contest for influence in the Middle East has pitted largely Sunni Saudi Arabia, backed by the United States, against largely Shiite Iran. A critical Saudi ally in that struggle was President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who was ousted by a popular revolt this month, leaving Egypt’s future leadership and loyalties an open question.
Moreover, Bahrain sits just off Saudi Arabia’s east coast, connected by a bridge to the mainland. On the Saudi side lies Eastern Province, an oil-rich region with a Shiite majority, who have an affinity for their fellow Shiites in Bahrain and no great love for the Saudi leaders.
To the north, Kuwait also has a Sunni monarchy and a restive Shiite population. The big fear among Sunni governments is that Bahrain, once part of Persia, could become another Iran, where the Islamic revolution of 1979 produced a bellicose Shiite theocracy.
But the Shiite protesters here insist their revolt is secular and democratic. When the protests started on Feb. 14, in a so-called Day of Rage modeled after events in Egypt and Tunisia, demonstrators called for a constitutional monarchy, an elected cabinet and a constitution written by the people, as opposed to one imposed by the king.
After two protesters were killed in the first two days, both shot in the back by the police, an infuriated and reinvigorated opposition added a new demand: an end to the monarchy.
The government eased off on Wednesday, and then cracked down again on Thursday, attacking the protesters without warning at 3 a.m. as thousands slept in the square beneath a towering monument with a pearl on top. At least five people were killed, though exact figures have not been verified. At least 25 people are still missing from that night, including children.
On Friday night, thousands rallied outside the main hospital, insisting they would avenge those killed and wounded by marching to the square, despite the cordon of police officers blocking every road.
The protesters set off from the hospital grounds with a mix of fear and determination. When they approached the phalanx of the police, officers opened fire and blanketed the neighborhood with tear gas. People were trampled, and dozens ran so frantically that they lost their shoes.
And then, the fight for the square was over.
“This is Bahrain; people are willing to be killed,” said Zaki Khalifa, 37, as he watched the jubilation. “The government can’t control this, and they know it. Today, the people are happy.”
Iranian Ships to Cross Suez
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(Nadim Audi contributed reporting from Manama, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.)