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Bahrain protesters march on palace as Gates visits

The Associated Press
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 11:51 AM

MANAMA, Bahrain -- Tens of thousands of Bahraini protesters encircled one of the royal family's palaces Saturday, shouting calls for political freedom and the king's ouster a day after a similar march triggered a violent response from security forces.

There was no repeat of the violent scenes from a day earlier when police backed by pro-government mobs drove crowds back from a different palace by firing rubber bullets and tear gas in a melee that injured dozens, according to witness accounts.

In contrast, Saturday's demonstration - which coincided with a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates - was allowed to ring the palace with police deployed only inside its premises.

Gates said that Bahrain and other Arab governments facing popular uprisings need to move quickly toward democratic reforms or risk giving regional rival Iran a chance to exploit the instability. Iran, a Shiite power in the region, is seen by Sunni-led countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as a serious threat.

Still, there is no evidence that Iran has made any inroads with the Shiite activists who have led a month of protests in Bahrain modeled on the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia but fueled by local grievances against the island kingdom's Sunni monarchy. Bahrain's majority Shiite population accuses the rulers of discriminating against them and persecuting those who speak out.

Gates was in Bahrain to encourage dialogue between the Shiite-led protest movement and the Sunni ruling family.

Bahrain holds particular importance to Washington as the host of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, the main American military counterweight to Iran's efforts to expand its armed forces and reach into the Gulf.

Gates is the first member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet to visit Bahrain since street protests began in mid-February. In Saturday's meetings, Gates had been expected to urge a more open dialogue with political opposition groups, while offering reassurances of U.S. support for the rulers.

The protesters have been staging daily demonstrations and marching on state and financial institutions that they say symbolize political oppression and economic inequality.

Tensions were high after Friday's march on the royal palace in Riffa, 12 miles (20 kilometers) south of Manama turned violent. The royal compound includes the Ruler's Court, the country's highest legal authority. Many members of ruling Al Khalifa family also live in the island capital's suburb.

Security forces, reinforced by pro-government Sunni vigilantes, responded by fired rubber bullets and tear gas to scatter protesters near the palace in Manama, the capital.

Several witnesses reported the use of rubber bullets by the government side on Friday, including two protesters and human rights activist Sayed Yousef al-Mahafdha. Dr. Ali al-Iqri, who was part of an ambulance crew treating the wounded, also said he witnessed the firing.

Bahrain's Interior Ministry denied its forces had fired rubber bullets though it acknowledged using tear gas.

Saturday's march on another royal compound in Saferiya, 15 miles (25 kilometers) west of Manama was bigger and peaceful. With police monitoring the demonstration from the palace's sprawling courtyard, the protesters encircled the king's summer residence - chanting anti-government slogans and calling on the monarch to step down.

Some protesters were dressed in white - the color of funeral shrouds - to symbolize a willingness to die for their cause. They carried signs that said in English and Arabic, "I am the next martyr" and "Willing to die for freedom."

The island's Shiites - about 70 percent of the population - have long demanded rights equal to those of the nation's Sunnis and the naturalized Sunnis from Arab states. The current political unrest is unprecedented, though tensions have simmered for years.

Seven protesters were killed in the government crackdown last month.

© 2011 The Associated Press