MANAMA, Bahrain – Bahrain’s leaders banned public gatherings and sent tanks into the streets Thursday, intensifying a crackdown that killed five anti-government protesters, wounded more than 200 and turned a hospital into a caldron of anguish and rage against the monarchy.
The tiny kingdom of Bahrain is a key part of Washington’s military counterbalance to Iran by hosting the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Bahrain’s rulers and their Arab allies depict any sign of unrest among their Shiite populations as a move by neighboring Shiite-majority Iran to expand its clout in the region.
While part of the recent revolt in the Arab world, the underlying tensions in Bahrain are decades old and pit the majority Shiites against the Sunni elite.
After allowing several days of rallies in the capital of Manama by disaffected Shiites, the island nation’s Sunni rulers unleashed riot police who stormed a protest encampment in Pearl Square before dawn, firing tear gas, beating demonstrators or blasting them with shotgun sprays of birdshot. Along with two who died in clashes with police Monday, the new killings brought the death toll this week in Bahrain to seven.
The willingness to resort to violence against largely peaceful demonstrators was a sign of how deeply the monarchy fears the repercussions of a prolonged wave of protests.
In the government’s first public comment on the crackdown, Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa said it was necessary because the demonstrators were “polarizing the country” and pushing it to the “brink of the sectarian abyss.”
Speaking to reporters after an emergency meeting with his Gulf counterparts in Manama to discuss the unrest, he called the violence “regrettable,” said the deaths would be investigated and added that authorities chose to clear the square by force at 3 a.m. – when the fewest number of people would be in the square – “to minimize any possibility of casualties.”
The Obama administration expressed alarm over the violent crackdown. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the foreign minister to register Washington’s “deep concern” and urge restraint. Similar criticism came from Britain and the European Union.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. has been encouraging reforms in the region for some time.
“The truth is I think the U.S. has consistently – primarily privately, but also publicly – encouraged these regimes for years to undertake political and economic reforms because the pressures were building,” Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “And now they need to move on with it and there is an urgency to this.”
Analysts said the wave of unrest has so concerned leaders in the Gulf that they are willing to risk bloodshed.
“It was one thing when it was happening in Tunisia and Egypt and another when it arrives on their doorstep,” said Toby Jones, an expert on Bahrain at Rutgers University. “The (Gulf rulers) are closing ranks now and showing how they are prepared to deal with challenges to their power. Their first instinct is to act quickly. It may be messy, but they don’t want this to linger.”
The protesters have two main objectives: force the ruling Sunni monarchy to give up its control over top government posts and all critical decisions, and address deep grievances held by the country’s majority Shiites who make up 70 percent of Bahrain’s 500,000 citizens but claim they face systematic discrimination and poverty and are effectively blocked from key roles in public service and the military.
The protests began with calls for the country’s Sunni monarchy to loosen its grip but the demands have steadily grown bolder. Many protesters called for the government to provide more jobs and better housing, free all political detainees and abolish the system that offers Bahraini citizenship to Sunnis from around the Middle East.
Increasingly, protesters also chanted slogans to wipe away the entire ruling dynasty that has led Bahrain for more than 200 years and is firmly backed by monarchs across the Gulf.