Protesters take control of main square in Bahrain

February 16, 2011

MANAMA/TEHRAN – Thousands of pro-democracy protesters poured into a main square in Bahrain's capital Tuesday in an Egypt-style rebellion that sharply escalated pressure on authorities as the Arab push for change gripped the Persian Gulf for the first time.

Security forces have battled demonstrators calling for political reforms and greater freedoms over two days, leading to the main opposition group vowing to freeze its work in parliament in protest, AP reported.
In a clear sign of concern over the widening crisis, Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa made a rare national TV address, offering condolences for the deaths, pledging an investigation into the killings and promising to push ahead with reforms, which include loosening state controls on the media and Internet.
Meanwhile, Bahrain's main Shia opposition party quitted the parliament in protest at a brutal crackdown of pro-democracy demonstrators and the use of violence by security forces.
The Islamic National Accord Association announced its decision to suspend participation in the parliament due to the killing of anti-government demonstrators, a Press TV correspondent reported.
The move by the Shia bloc, which holds 18 seats in the 40-member house, came after a second protester was shot dead by security forces near capital Manama.
Thousands of people took to the streets following the funeral procession of a 20-year-old demonstrator who was killed in protests on Monday.
As the crowds surged into the Pearl Square in the capital of Manama, security forces appeared to hold back. But key highways were blocked in an apparent attempt to choke off access to the vast traffic circle -- which protesters quickly renamed “Nation's Square” and erected banners such as “Peaceful” that were prominent in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of protests there.
Yemen’s neighbor Saudi Arabia decided to send troops to help King Al Khalifa to crack down on the protesters in Manama, a political analyst told Press TV on Tuesday.
The dramatic move Tuesday came just hours after a second protester died in clashes with police in the strategic island kingdom, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Oppositions groups aren't calling for the ruling Sunni monarchy to be ousted, but they do want an end to its grip on key decisions and government posts.
Other demands -- listed on a poster erected in the square -- included the release of all political prisoners, more jobs and housing, an elected Cabinet and the replacement of longtime prime minister, Sheik Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, AP reported.
The nation's majority Shias -- about 70 percent of the population of some 500,000 -- have long complained of discrimination and being blackballed from important state jobs.
Many in the square waved Bahraini flags and chanted: “No Sunnis, no Shias. We are all Bahrainis.” It also appeared they were planning for the long haul. Some groups carried in tents and sought generators to set up under a nearly 300-foot (90-meter) monument cradling a giant white pearl-shaped ball that symbolizes the country's heritage as a pearl diving center.
Bahrain is one of the most politically volatile nations in the Middle East's wealthiest corner despite having one of the few elected parliaments and some of the most robust civil society groups. A crackdown on perceived dissent last year touched off weeks of riots and clashes in Shia villages, and an ongoing trial in Bahrain accuses 25 Shias of plotting against the country's leadership.
Bahrain is also an economic weakling compared with the staggering energy riches of Persian Gulf neighbors such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which can afford far more generous social benefits. Bahrain's oil reserves are small and its role as the region's international financial hub have been greatly eclipsed by Dubai.
One protester, 24-year-old Hussein Asamahiji, echoed the complaints from Tunisia and Egypt: a lack of jobs and allegations that the ruling elite monopolizes the best opportunities.
“We simply want the chance at a better future,” he said. “Egypt showed it's possible.”
The bloodshed already has brought sharp denunciations from the largest Shia political bloc, which suspended its participation in parliament, and could threaten the nation's gradual pro-democracy reforms that have given Shias a greater political voice.
The second day of turmoil began after police tried to disperse up to 10,000 mourners gathering at a hospital parking lot to begin a funeral procession for Ali Abdulhadi Mushaima, 21, who died in Monday's marches.
Officials at Bahrain's Salmaniya Medical Complex said a 31-year-old man became the second fatality when he died of injuries from birdshot fired during the melee in the hospital's parking lot. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to journalists.
Photo: Thousands of Bahraini protesters gather in capital Manama, on February 15, 2011