By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
Britain responded to the violence by revoking licenses that have allowed the Bahraini kingdom to buy tear-gas canisters, crowd-control ammunition and other equipment. France suspended exports of security equipment to the country.
Obama, meanwhile, called King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to discuss the unrest and the government's response.
In a statement, the White House said Obama "reiterated his condemnation of the violence used against peaceful protesters, and strongly urged the government of Bahrain to show restraint, and to hold those responsible for the violence accountable."
"As a long-standing partner of Bahrain, the President said that the United States believes that the stability of Bahrain depends upon respect for the universal rights of the people of Bahrain, and a process of meaningful reform that is responsive to the aspirations of all Bahrainis," the statement said.
The United States last year provided Bahrain with about $21 million in military assistance, a substantial amount given the country's relatively small size. Of that total, about $1 million was designated for counterterrorism aid, much of it for the police and military forces that are suppressing the protests in the country's capital.
Administration officials have discussed the possible suspension of military licensing to Bahrain, according to one U.S. official. As of late Friday, however, a senior official at U.S. Central Command said it had not received notification of a suspension.
There were conflicting accounts of the clashes in Bahrain, with some witnesses saying that the military fired from helicopters or sniper's nests as well as from armored personnel carriers equipped with machine guns. The riot police then fired tear gas, the witnesses said, sending victims rushing to the city's public hospital, which was overwhelmed by the wounded and has become a new staging ground for anti-government protests.
The armored personnel carriers "came, three or four of them, and started firing shots," said Mazen Mahdi, a Bahraini photojournalist who was accompanying the demonstrators. "The first was a warning shot in the air. But after that, they just opened fire at the people."
Amid the unrest, Bahrain's crown prince made an unexpected appearance on a talk show on state television Friday night to appeal for calm and to invite the opposition to take part in a dialogue.
"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," Salman said, inviting the opposition's leaders to meet with him Saturday to discuss their grievances - a gesture that prompted hopes a deal could be in the works to defuse tensions. His father said in a statement that he had assigned the crown prince "to start a dialogue with all parties and sections in our beloved Bahrain and without exception."
The nature of the unrest in Bahrain poses hard choices for the Obama administration, given its sectarian cast, the fear it inspires among strategic neighbors and the fact that although most Bahrainis seek political reform, not all of them are calling for the monarchy's end.
Bahrain's Shiite majority has long bristled at the Sunni monarchy of the Khalifa family. But many Sunni Arab governments, most notably those in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, have warned for years that Bahrain could emerge as Iran's first link in a "Shiite crescent" arcing through the Persian Gulf, up the heart of the Middle East and ending in Lebanon, where Hezbollah serves as Iran's proxy.
No evidence has emerged that Iran has had a hand in Bahrain's revolt. But regional fears that political reform in Bahrain benefits Iran's rise are guiding Saudi Arabia's response and forcing a cautious reaction from the White House.
And although Egyptians' call for President Hosni Mubarak's ouster reached near unanimity, Bahrain's Shiite-led protest movement is not as unified around the idea that the monarchy must go, and most in the minority Sunni population support the ruling family.
Demonstrators agree that political reform is needed urgently, but the opposition remains divided over whether that should begin or end with the Khalifa family's removal.
As al-Wefaq, the leading Shiite party, was meeting to consider the invitation to a dialogue, there were also reports that a top Bahraini Shiite cleric had urged his followers to stop demonstrating and return home.
In Bahrain, the unrest has rattled locals who are unaccustomed to such prolonged instability. Although Shiite-led demonstrations have been staged periodically over the past two decades, longtime Bahraini observers do not recall a government crackdown this severe.
The divide inside the country was apparent earlier Friday, before the clashes with demonstrators, as thousands of mostly Sunni supporters of the Khalifa family marched in a pro-government rally, waving the red-and-white Bahraini flag.
The crowd - predominantly Sunni Muslim Bahrainis or expatriates from countries such as India and Pakistan - carried pictures of the king and the prime minister and chanted slogans in favor of their continued rule.
"This is a lovely country. It's like a dream," said an Indian man with a Bahraini flag tied around his neck and draped down his back like a cape, who gave his name as Abdul Kareem.
Staff writers Scott Wilson and Greg Jaffe and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington and correspondents Anthony Faiola in London and Sudarsan Raghavan in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.