Bahrain demonstrators return to protest site in capital after military withdraws
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 12:22 PM
MANAMA, BAHRAIN - Anti-government protesters streamed back into Bahrain's Pearl Square roundabout Saturday to continue their push for political reforms after tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled out of the capital following an order by the crown prince for the military to withdraw.
Police at first fired tear gas at the protesters as they approached the site they were forcibly expelled from just three days ago, witnesses said, but then security forces pulled back to allow the demonstrators to reach the roundabout, located in the financial district of the capital, Manama.
Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, who has been assigned to try to broker a dialogue with the country's mostly Shiite-led opposition, appears to hope that by halting the heavy-handed tactics employed by security services over the past few days, he can create an opening for discussion of the protesters' grievances.
In a statement released Saturday, the crown prince appealed to all political factions to join hands and "begin a new phase" in which "we will discuss all our issues sincerely and honestly."
The statement represented a "180-degree change of policy," said Jassim Hussain, a member of the leading Shiite political party, al-Wefaq, which withdrew its 18 members from the 40-seat parliament after a deadly crackdown on demonstrators Thursday.
The party has still not decided whether to sit down with the crown prince. "Al-Wefaq made a decree that they need the right environment before any serious dialogue can start. I'm sure this kind of environment will help," Hussain said. But he added, referring to the broader opposition movement: "We still have people who are not in the mood to talk."
The disunity within the opposition over its ultimate goals and the protesters' passionate determination to continue demonstrating have left the outcome of this uprising uncertain and even the short-term outlook hard to predict.
The Bahraini military's retreat came after a violent turn of events in the Middle East on Friday, as U.S.-allied governments in Yemen and Bahrain opened fire on their citizens, prompting Britain and France to announce a halt in arms sales.
The use of live ammunition against pro-democracy demonstrators also triggered sharp criticism from President Obama, who called on authorities in Yemen, Bahrain and Libya to show restraint and "respect the rights of their people." Obama later spoke to the Bahraini king Friday night and urged that "those responsible for the violence" be held accountable.
Clashes erupted across the region Friday, from Jordan to Djibouti. An eighth straight day of violence in Yemen claimed at least one life in the southern city of Aden, where police fired gunshots to break up a crowd. In Libya, the death toll was reported to be in the dozens after four days of clashes in the coastal city of Benghazi, where security forces have also fired on protesters.
But the response from security forces was most heavy-handed in tiny Bahrain, home to the U.S. 5th Fleet, where soldiers used armored personnel carriers and machine guns to fire on protesters, wounding dozens, at least four of them critically.
Bahrain's king tried to restore calm by appointing his son, the crown prince, to lead a dialogue with anti-government demonstrators, most of them Shiite Muslims, who are demanding greater representation and other democratic reforms in a country where most power is wielded by the Sunni minority.