By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 7:51 AM
MANAMA, BAHRAIN - A swelling anti-government protest that had drawn thousands to the heart of this country's financial district was broken up Thursday in a predawn raid by police who used tear gas, clubs and rubber bullets to clear the crowd.
At least two people were killed, and protesters said others were critically injured. There was no official word on casualties from Bahrain's authorities.
Hours later, tanks rumbled into Manama as Apache helicopters flew overhead. Military vehicles and police blocked roads, and some areas were cordoned off with barbed wire. In what longtime observers said was turning into an unusually severe crackdown here, the Bahraini national security council met and declared a state of emergency.
The authorities declared the emergency "just to clear them, to force them to go back to their houses," a Bahraini government official said, referring to the protesters. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter.
The raid took place hours after protesters gathered here in Bahrain's capital to demand greater political freedoms and more jobs. Some had escalated their demands to include the ouster of Bahrain's prime minister, a member of the royal family who has served for nearly 40 years, and even an end to the al-Khalifa monarchy.
The crackdown followed one earlier this week that left two demonstrators dead and prompted an apology from King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
"The Bahrain authorities have taken the tough option. It might also prove the foolish option," said Simon Henderson, a Persian Gulf specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Early Thursday, hundreds of police officers surrounded protesters gathered in a makeshift encampment in the Pearl Square roundabout - including women and children who were asleep in tents - before firing tear gas and ammunition to clear the area, witnesses said.
"The people were in the middle, attacked from both sides. The people tried to run away in the villages,'' Mohammed al-Maskati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, who was in the square at the time, said in an interview.
As some officers chased fleeing protesters toward those villages, others cordoned off the traffic circle, even blocking those who live on the circle from leaving their buildings, witnesses said.
Al-Maskati said his group confirmed two killed but noted that many injured were still being brought to Manama's main hospital, a task complicated by the police cordon.
In one sense, the anti-government protests here are not new. Shiite Muslims are a majority of Bahrain's population, and they have rarely been shy about challenging the power and privilege vested in the Sunni minority under the al-Khalifa family.
But this time, Bahrain's Shiite protesters modeled their message on the back-to-back revolts that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia. As a substitute for Cairo's Tahrir Square, they chose Pearl Square as the epicenter of their movement.
Bahrain, a tiny island sandwiched between Iran and Saudi Arabia, has long served as an important U.S. ally in the region. That close relationship presents Washington with a fresh balancing act as it tries to maintain the good ties without betraying calls for democracy.
The U.S. stance has been muddied by the strong praise for Bahrain's leaders that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton voiced during a visit to that country in December, commending their dedication to reform. "I think the commitment to democracy is paramount," she said at the time. "I see the glass as half-full."
Speaking in Washington on Wednesday, Clinton sought to clarify the administration's stance toward protest movements, insisting that the United States doesn't take sides in disputes between demonstrators and their governments.
"Let me be clear: Our support for democracy and human rights is not about siding for or against governments or citizens," she said at the State Department. "This is about standing up for universal principles and for those in and out of government who support them.''
But she added that there are "many paths to democracy'' and that each country must "work to realize its own democratic values and build its own democratic institutions in its own way."
Only 31/2 times the size of Washington, Bahrain has become a setting for broader regional tensions in part because of its location. While Shiite-led Iran has historic connections to Bahrain and wields influence with the country's Shiite masses, Sunni-led Saudi Arabia props up the ruling al-Khalifa family with cash. With dwindling oil resources, Bahrain relies on Saudi Arabia - the two nations are connected by a lengthy causeway - for money and a security blanket.
Some regional experts have long warned that a concerted Shiite challenge to the monarchy in Bahrain might prompt intervention from Saudi Arabia to ensure that the al-Khalifa family remains in power - and to prevent a neighbor from falling completely into Iran's orbit.
"Never forget the main strategic purpose of the causeway to Saudi Arabia is to allow Saudi forces to rush over to quell Shia riots," said Henderson, the Persian Gulf analyst.
In response to the marches and other protests that have erupted periodically over at least the past two decades, the regime has often cracked down with vigor. For instance, a trial is underway for more than 20 Shiite political activists who were detained in August and charged with terrorism and with conspiring against the government.
But the past several weeks of regional turmoil have lent a new context that experts and officials say might make King Hamad's regime more vulnerable.
"This is nothing they haven't dealt with before. They've had communal violence for generations," said a U.S. diplomat with experience in the Persian Gulf region, who was not authorized to talk to the media and so spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But the atmosphere, the environment is new. So it's not that it snuck up on them; it's that the rules changed."
Hamad gave a rare television address Tuesday to apologize to his people for the killings of the two protesters earlier in the week. He also gave every family 1,000 Bahraini dinars ($2,650) to quell discontent. The foreign minister announced Wednesday that a special committee, chaired by the deputy prime minister, had been formed "to investigate the deaths of two dear sons of Bahrain."
"People don't want only an investigation about the killings - they want change," Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told al-Jazeera in response.
Staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.