By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 18, 2011; 2:42 PM
MANAMA, BAHRAIN - The Bahraini military fired live ammunition at anti-government demonstrators Friday, inflicting casualties on marchers who tried to reach the scene of a deadly crackdown the day before, witnesses said.
Hundreds of predominately Shiite anti-government protesters were marching toward a public hospital following a funeral for a demonstrator who was killed Thursday when riot police overran a protest encampment at Pearl Square. The procession then suddenly diverted toward the square, which protesters had sought to turn into this tiny kingdom's equivalent of Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of demonstrations that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt last week.
President Obama said Friday he was "deeply concerned by reports of violence in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen," as he condemned harsh government responses to peaceful protests. In a statement issued by the White House while he was visiting the West Coast, Obama urged the three countries "to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests, and to respect the rights of their people."
In Britain, the Conservative-led coalition government on Friday decided to revoke a series of weapons sale licenses to Bahrain and Libya after coming under heavy criticism for striking such deals with Arab governments that are now cracking down on protesters. The "urgent" policy review came after London approved recent sales to Bahrain of 250 tear gas canisters, crowd-control ammunition and equipment for use in aircraft cannons, assault rifles and other weapons.
At Pearl Square, army armored personnel carriers had been parked all day to secure the area and prevent protesters from reaching the site.
"The APCs came, three or four of them, and started firing shots," Mazen Mahdi, a Bahraini photojournalist who was accompanying the procession, said in an interview. "The first was a warning shot in the air. But after that, they just opened fire at the people."
Mahdi described the shooting as live fire from machine guns. After about 30 minutes, the police, who had retreated to let the APCs approach, returned and fired tear gas, dispersing all demonstrators from the area.
Mahdi said he saw ambulance crews being prevented from reaching the site. "They shot at the ambulances when they came in," he said.
There was no statement from the military, but an official at the Interior Ministry sent a text message to Bahrainis Friday night urging them to stay indoors.
As of around 8 p.m., there were approximately 50 riot police cars on the Pearl Square roundabout, a resident who lives above the square said. "We did hear gunshots fired," the resident, who declined to be identified by name, said by telephone.
At the main public hospital, Salmaniya, three people were undergoing surgery for serious head injuries, and many more were arriving with less serious wounds, witnesses said. CNN reported that four people were killed, but that could not immediately be confirmed.
Witnesses said the Salmaniya hospital was overwhelmed with wounded and that casualties were being diverted to private hospitals around the capital.
The U.S. Embassy in Manama posted a notice on its Web site Friday urging American citizens living in Bahrain to stay in their homes until further notice. It said there were "confirmed reports of violent clashes including weapons fired between protesters and security forces in various parts of the city,'' suggesting that some of the demonstrators may have been armed.
Bahrain's crown prince, Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, who is the son of Bahrain's king, made an unexpected appearance on Bahrain television Friday night as the fresh round of violence gripped the capital.
"I gave my message to the people, to everyone, to withdraw from the streets and calm down. We will all reach a joint point of view," he said.
A rattled interviewer replied: "I hope there is still time to correct things in this country. I hope that this will be the last of our grieving and the last of our unhappiness and this will all end soon. We want our country to be safe."
Earlier, there were conflicting reports of the violence, with some witnesses saying Bahraini troops shot at the protesters with live ammunition and others saying the troops fired heavy weapons into the air as warning shots. The use of tear gas and rubber bullets was also reported.
"A lot of casualties are being transported to the hospital," said Jasim Husain, a member of the Shiite al-Wefaq party, which withdrew from parliament Thursday to protest the government's crackdown.
Hospital officials said at least 20 people were injured, some seriously, the Associated Press reported. Ambulance sirens were heard throughout Manama.
The violence came after thousands of pro-government marchers rallied in Manama on Friday in support of Bahrain's king. Those marchers, many dressed in the red and white colors of the Bahraini flag, trooped along al-Fatih Highway through a solidly pro-government part of town.
As the pro-government crowd rallied, thousands of protesters marched and chanted anti-government slogans at funerals in the predominately Shiite villages on the outskirts of Manama for those who were killed in the government crackdown. Protesters used Twitter to urge people to attend the funerals.
Mourners at funerals and at Friday prayers called for toppling the monarchy in Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
The United States last year provided Bahrain about $20.8 million in military assistance, a substantial amount for such a small country and almost double what it received in 2009. The majority of the funds went to pay for improvements to Bahrain's F-16 fighter fleet and to its navy's flagship frigate, supplied by the United States in 1996.
In the past, Bahrain has sent more than 100 police to Afghanistan to help build up that country's force. Overall U.S. counterterrorism aid to Bahrain doubled last year to almost $1.1 million.
Much of that money likely went to police and military forces that are suppressing the current protests. In its annual report on foreign military aid, the State Department said the anti-terrorism assistance was used to "develop the capabilities that the Bahraini police are using in Afghanistan, and in Bahrain will contribute to other forms of counterterrorism with Bahrain."
The pro-government marchers Friday - predominately Sunni Muslim Bahrainis and expatriates from countries such as India and Pakistan - carried pictures of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa and chanted slogans in favor of their continued rule. Land Rovers, Lexuses and Range Rovers honked their horns as they crawled by the rally, which was broadcast live on Bahrain state television.
"This is a lovely country. It's like a dream," said one Indian man wearing a Bahraini flag draped down his back like a cape and carrying a large photo of the king. The man, Abdul Kareem, said he works in the Interior Ministry and has lived in Bahrain for 30 years.
"We love the leadership. They are providing the best life in the world, not only for the countrymen but for the expatriates," he said.
Two Bahraini men who walked together, but declined to give their names, said they had come to show their support for the royal family and to advocate unity for the country, whose sectarian divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims was exacerbated by this week's protests.
"We are all Bahrainis," one man said. "We are refusing the outside agendas."
One group carried posters criticizing al-Jazeera satellite television and the BBC for their reports on anti-government demonstrations.
The state of emergency imposed Thursday over this tiny Persian Gulf state followed a crackdown by a police force heavily composed of foreign nationals and controlled by a widely despised prime minister.
The country is effectively under martial law after violence that left five dead as Bahrain's Shiite majority, dissatisfied over their place in a Sunni-led monarchy, followed the mood of protest in other Arab countries and pushed for reform.
Banks and some grocery stores closed Thursday. The main Shiite political party announced its withdrawal from parliament, and leaders called for a "Day of Rage" after Friday prayers.
In a statement Friday, Alistair Burt, the British Foreign Office's top diplomat on the Middle East and North Africa, said: "We are deeply concerned about the situation in Bahrain and the events which have led to the deaths of several protesters." He added that Britain would not issue export licences "where we judge there is a clear risk that the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, or which might be used to facilitate internal repression."
The government was also under fire for approving arms exports to Libya in the third quarter of 2010, including projectile launchers, sniper rifles, crowd-control ammunition and tear gas, according to the London-based Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). In addition, the group said, combat helicopters and other equipment were also approved for sale to Algeria.
Critics from the opposition Labor Party accused the British government of being "on the wrong side of history," underscoring how governments on both sides of the Atlantic are coming under heavy scrutiny for their close alliances with repressive Arab governments. "It is astounding that the government is still insisting it has a responsible arms export policy while, in the same breath, admitting that it was happy to supply authoritarian regimes with the means to crush dissent," said Sarah Waldron, campaigns coordinator at CAAT.
Other leaders among the Persian Gulf countries rallied to the defense of Bahrain's monarchy, denouncing any outside influence in the country's affairs and praising the quick action of Bahraini leaders to counter the protests. Though the violence was "regrettable," said Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, the protests were pushing the country toward a "sectarian abyss."
Most residents of the gulf states are Sunni, and there are enduring concerns among the region's leaders about Iran's influence over Shiite communities, particularly in Bahrain and neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged the government to use restraint in response to the protests, telling the Bahraini foreign minister in a phone call of "deep concerns" over the police-led violence.
Bahrain is the first of the oil-rich gulf monarchies to be significantly rattled by the protests that have broken out elsewhere, forcing the United States and other countries to again balance strategic interests with the democratic demands of the population. Along with its proximity to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain hosts a major U.S. naval base that serves as a staging ground for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bahrain's roughly 12,000-member military is made up predominantly of Bahraini nationals. But the Bahraini security forces, including riot police, are filled with Pakistanis and other foreign-born troops and officers "who are happy to do whatever they have to do to keep law and order," said Bruce Riedel, a former Middle East CIA analyst now with the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The situation in Bahrain is further complicated by a palace feud between the country's prime minister and his nephew, the country's king.
The police involved in Thursday's violence are answerable to the prime minister, and the force's reliance on Pakistanis and other foreign recruits has long been a source of tension in the country.
What remains unknown is whether King Hamad agreed to the action - he had apologized publicly for earlier police violence - and whether the crackdown would continue.
"There's always been a question - and it's completely opaque - as to just how much the king controls . . . and just how much the prime minister controls,'' said Gregory Gause, a Persian Gulf specialist in the political science department at the University of Vermont. "You have the king making certain signals the one day and then the next day, the troops move in.''
An architect of past efforts to suppress Bahrain's Shiite majority and a known skeptic of democratic reforms, the prime minister has been in office for four decades. Some of his powers were stripped after his nephew took the throne in 1999, but he remains an influential figure. While Hamad is believed to want to transfer even more authority to his son, the U.S.-educated crown prince, observers here say family politics make it impossible for the king to replace his uncle.
Staff writers Greg Jaffe, William Branigin and Joby Warrick in Washington and Anthony Faiola in London contributed to this report.