By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 11:15 PM
MANAMA, BAHRAIN - Tens of thousands of protesters waving red-and-white Bahraini flags flooded the central district of the capital Tuesday in the largest demonstration since a Shiite-led campaign against the government began eight days ago.
People packed Pearl Square, the heart of the protests, as the country's Shiite majority continued to press for concessions from the Sunni monarchy. But the day brought little political resolution.
A ribbon of cheering protesters filled the eastbound lanes of an almost two-mile stretch of highway, streaming into the square to reiterate calls for changes that would give the country's Shiites better opportunities and a say in the government, which the royal family leads.
Earlier, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa announced that he would release some political prisoners, one of the opposition's conditions for the opening of negotiations, but it remained unclear how many would be freed. A spokesman for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights said that 23 activists accused last year of plotting to overthrow the government were released early Wednesday, a significant concession.
Neither the police nor the army was visible near the scene of Tuesday's peaceful protest. Shortly beforehand, a convoy of more than a dozen armored personnel carriers and six trucks of troops sped away from Manama in the direction of the airport and a Sunni village.
But the path forward remained unclear, as protesters appeared divided about what it would take to get them out of the streets. At first, the demonstrations were focused on winning democratic reforms and a constitutional monarchy. But since police and soldiers fired on protesters last week, killing seven people, the voices of hard-liners pushing for the royal family's ouster have grown louder.
The monarchy was buoyed by a major government-organized rally Monday evening that drew many thousands calling for moderate changes. Text messages telling people to come to the rally were sent via at least two cellphone networks.
In Barbar, a Shiite village on the northern coast, people on the street had varied opinions Tuesday about what should happen to the king.
"Obama, go tell Hamad to finish, go away," said Adel Abdullah, 35, a human resources officer. "We've had 230 years of al-Khalifa," the ruling family, he added. "It's enough."
But a neighbor, Sayed Ahmed, 40, who works in a government ministry, said he simply wants equal housing and economic opportunities and doesn't want to see the monarch gone - even though he said one of his nephews has been in jail since August, falsely accused, he said, of setting tires on fire on a road.
"We don't need the Khalifas going out," he said. Still, he said, "there are some people who are very, very poor."
In Malkiya, another Shiite village that is separated from Barbar by a long stretch of highway along which sparkling pink and salmon townhouses are being built for members of the Sunni-only armed forces, residents buried Abdul al-Redha Bu Hameed on Tuesday, four days after a soldier shot him in the head during a protest.
In the graveyard, Bu Hameed's father, Mohammad Bu Hameed, a former fisherman, said he had woven a small boat from palm reeds for the king two years ago.
"I give him a gift. The king gives this to us?" he said, twisting his hands into the shape of a machine gun. But more of his children could be killed, "and still I would offer him flowers," he said of the king, picking up a rose from his son's sandy grave.
"We want jobs," he said. "He must be just in dealing with all citizens."
Bu Hameed declined to say whether he thinks the king should stay or go.
"We are guided by the Islamic leaders," he said, citing leading moderate members of Bahrain's Shiite clergy.
Hassan Mushaima, an exiled hard-line opposition leader, had been expected to return to Bahrain on Tuesday but did not. He told CNN earlier Tuesday that he would support a constitutional monarchy or the abolition of the monarchy, depending on protesters' demands.