MANAMA, Bahrain – Thousands of singing and dancing protesters streamed back into Manama’s central Pearl Square on Saturday after Bahrain’s leaders withdrew tanks and riot police following a bloody crackdown by security forces in the tiny monarchy.
The royal family, which was quick to use force earlier in the week against demonstrators in the landmark square that has been the heart of the anti-government demonstrations, appeared to back away from further confrontation following international pressure from the West.
The demonstrators had sought to emulate successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in attempting to bring political change to Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet – the centerpiece of Washington’s efforts to confront Iranian military influence in the region.
Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, appealed for calm and political dialogue in a brief address on state TV.
A leader of Al Wefaq, the Shiite opposition group, said the crown prince “did the right thing” by withdrawing security forces from the streets and letting people return to Pearl Square.
“The crown prince opened the door for dialogue because he prevented more killing from occurring and allowed people to demand their rights,” said the leader, Abdul-Jalil Khalil.
People circling through the square clapped, whistled and wept. Some wore white sheets symbolizing their readiness for martyrdom, while others carried Bahraini flags, flowers and signs that said “Peaceful.”
“We are victorious!” they chanted as they marched back into the square that has been the headquarters for their revolt against the Sunni monarchy in the predominantly Shiite island nation.
They also chanted: “The people want the removal of the regime.”
As night fell, defiant protesters erected barriers, wired a sound system, set up a makeshift medical tent and deployed lookouts to warn of approaching security forces.
Bahrain’s trade unions called for a general strike today. Some students on the square said they will skip class for a week to mourn those killed in the uprising.
President Barack Obama discussed the situation with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, asking him to hold those responsible for the violence accountable. He said in a statement that Bahrain must respect the “universal rights” of its people and embrace “meaningful reform.”