Protests continue in Bahrain as Shiite leader calls for end of monarchy

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, demonstrators in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.

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Compiled by Ian Saleh
Washington Post Staff
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 11:39 AM

Bahraini anti-government protests have reached their eighth day. As Michael Birnbaum reported:

Tens of thousands of Shiite-led protesters filled the central district of Bahrain's capital Tuesday afternoon in the largest demonstration since a campaign against the government began eight days ago.

Protesters packed the eastbound lanes of an almost two-mile stretch of highway as they streamed into Pearl Square, a focal point for the demonstrations. They waved red-and-white Bahraini flags and called for changes that would give the country's Shiite majority better opportunities and a say in the government, which is led by the Sunni royal family.

But people appeared divided about whether they thought those demands could be met if the royal family stayed on. When protests started last week, they focused on calls for democratic reforms and a constitutional monarchy. Hard-liners calling for the complete ouster of the royal family have gained more of a hearing since police and army troops fired on protesters last week, killing seven.

Tensions rose after a hard-line Shiite leader called for the end of Bahrain's monarchy. As Michael Brirnbaum and Janine Zacharia explained:

A key hard-line Shiite leader called for an end to Bahrain's monarchy on Monday and another made plans to fly back to the country on Tuesday, escalating tension and threatening to open fissures in the opposition as protests stretch into a second week.

In an interview at his home in Nuwaidrat, a village south of Manama, Abdulwahab Hussain said that he and the officially illegal Wafa movement that he founded would not accept any deal short of the king's departure.

"The people are now asking the regime to step down," he said. After the violence of the past week, "the regime doesn't have the legitimacy to be ruling the people."

Analysts and moderate political leaders said that those calls could further radicalize the opposition and that the situation could grow even more tense with the planned return Tuesday of the secretary general of Haq, the other large hard-line Shiite opposition movement. Hassan Mushaima was a leader in a major Shiite uprising in Bahrain in 1994 and has been living in London since last year after seeking medical treatment.

In an attempt to calm protesters King Al Khalifa ordered the release of several political prisoners. As AP reported:

Bahrain's king ordered the release of some political prisoners Tuesday, conceding to another opposition demand as the embattled monarchy tries to engage protesters in talks aimed at ending an uprising that has entered its second week.

The king's decree - which covers several Shiite activists accused of plotting against the state - adds to the brinksmanship on both sides that has included a massive pro-government rally Monday, an opposition march in response and the planned return of a prominent opposition figure from exile.

It's unclear how many prisoners will be freed, government spokeswoman Maysoon Sabkar said.

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