Bahraini troops fire on peaceful protesters in chaotic scene

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 18, 2011 

MANAMA, Bahrain — The Islamic call to prayer and the sound of gunfire competed for this nation’s attention Friday as both rang out at the same time. Men who'd been kneeling in prayer sprang up and ran as Bahraini troops fired live ammunition and tear gas at thousands of peaceful protesters in the capital's main square.

The result was dozens of injuries, including at least four serious ones, and thousands of Bahrainis who once wanted only constitutional reform now are calling for the death of their king.

People carrying men, women and children — some bleeding from bullet wounds, others overcome by tear gas — crowded into Salmaniya Medical Center, where the frantic, overwhelmed staff struggled to cope.

Thousands of demonstrators, who are demanding that a democratic system replace Bahrain's U.S.-backed al Khalifa dynasty, then converged on the hospital. That prompted security forces to surround it until some police officers began taking off their uniforms and joining the protesters, to an eruption of cheers.

"We are peaceful. We don't even have a rock," Mohammad, a 26-year-old laborer who was to afraid to give his full name, cried as the throng shouted, "The victory is from Allah, and it will be with us," "Down, down, Khalifa" and "The people want the regime to fall.”

After the protests turned violent, Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa called on his son to lead a national dialogue effort.

President Obama called the king Friday evening and "strongly urged the government of Bahrain to show restraint, and to hold those responsible for the violence accountable," the White House said in a statement. A nearly identical call for restraint by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday was ignored by the regime, which instead attacked unarmed protesters.

The bloodshed marked a major escalation in the crisis, which began Monday in Manama with a protest for democratic reforms. It was inspired by the popular revolts that drove out the aging despotic rulers of Egypt and Tunisia, which are fueling anti-regime movements across the volatile region.

But where Egypt was united in nationalism and behind an army that represented the best hope for stability, Bahrain’s uprising is rooting in sectarianism, and its army is composed largely of foreigners who are of the ruling party’s minority Sunni Muslim sect.

Friday's violence erupted after the funerals of four protesters, who'd been killed a day earlier in a predawn onslaught by Bahraini security forces against thousands of sleeping anti-government protesters occupying Pearl Square, the capital's main traffic circle.

The funerals turned into new demonstrations against the monarchy. Thousands marched to Pearl Square, where they found soldiers, tanks and armored personnel carriers. As many of the mostly Shiite Muslim crowd knelt to pray, the troops, made up of mercenaries recruited from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan and Egypt, began firing live ammunition and tear gas, igniting stampedes into nearby streets.

"They are 100 percent Saudis. I can hear it in their accent," Mohammad, the laborer and a Shiite, said of the soldiers in the square. “They are wearing the Bahraini uniform but they are not one of us.”

An elderly man with dried blood on his hands said he'd been cradling a protester who was dying from a bullet wound to his head. Casualties streamed into the medical center even as the medical staff was staging its own protest against the monarchy.

Chaos ensued. Doctors and nurses struggled to treat the wounded, who were being rolled in on gurneys. Others held hands to form a human chain at the hospital's entrance, allowing the injured to enter but preventing families looking for relatives from storming in. Hospital staff ushered journalists in and took them from one wounded person to another: a baby burned by tear gas, a hysterical 14-year-old boy and a teen convulsing from tear gas among them.

“Write this in your newspapers,” they yelled, as an ambulance driver held up an X-ray of a man who'd been shot in the head, the shattered bullet taking nearly a quarter of the frame. “Take a picture of this.”

One doctor, who wanted to be referred to as Umm Haitham, 39, grabbed her colleague’s hand as staff scurried about searching for defibrillators and oxygen tanks. Umm Haitham said that it was strangely serendipitous that so many staffers were at the hospital when the injured poured in. They'd been gathered for a protest against the violence of the previous day, which killed at least five people, when Friday’s flood of patients began.

"This is a massacre," another doctor told Umm Haitham as the wounded swept in; the two women stopped and grabbed each other’s hands. Upstairs, Umm Haitham’s husband, a trauma surgeon, was operating on a gunshot victim. “When they started coming in, I thought, ‘Oh, please, don’t start again,” Umm Haitham said, referring to the government’s repression.

Some people said that troops had closed off Pearl Square, barring exits for the casualties still inside. In all, at least 66 people were injured, according to Dr. Ali Ibrahim, the deputy chief of medical staff at the hospital.

Even as protesters chanted outside the hospital that's become the new rallying point, they fretted that it now appeared the conflict will remain bloody before any hope of resolution.

“If 1,000 people have to die, we will not stop,” Hussein Matkhom, 31, said outside the hospital, his white shirt spattered in blood. As he spoke, thousands who were gathered at the hospital chanted “Death to Khalifas,” referring to the royal family.

Earlier in the day, the government took journalists who’d been held at the airport for as long as 15 hours on what they promised would be a 15-minute ride to their hotels. But it became a three-hour tour timed to pass by hundreds gathered in a pro-government rally, some wearing Gucci sunglasses and bright red lipstick. Opponents charged that they were mainly Indians and Sunnis whom the regime regularly brought in and offered lucrative jobs not available to the majority Shiite population.

Some 70 percent of Bahrain's population is Shiite, while the dynasty and the regime headed by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa are Sunni.

The government’s insistence to the once-trapped journalists that the country was indeed peaceful ran afoul of events hours later.

In the medical facility, staff members shouted for donations of blood. Outside, people passed out food and water, while hospital workers held up cardboard signs showing what blood types were needed.

There also were reports of clashes in other parts of Manama.

Bahrain is a large Persian Gulf island of significant strategic value to the United States. It's the headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet, whose mission is to ensure free passage for oil tankers through the gulf and to neutralize the threat posed by Iran, the region's biggest military power.

The government has sought to blame foreign agents for the turmoil, a reference to Iran, the world's largest Shiite nation. The demonstrators, mostly young, have included members of both Islamic sects, and they say that theirs is not a religious movement.

Indeed, outside the hospital, women wearing black abayas, traditional Shiite garb, chanted alongside men in white robes, usually worn by Sunni men.

U.S. diplomats in Bahrain had expressed skepticism about Iran's influence in the sheikdom in a 2008 State Department cable released by the WikiLeaks organization.

"Bahraini government officials sometimes privately tell U.S. official visitors that some Shi'a oppositionists are backed by Iran. Each time this claim is raised, we ask the (government) to share its evidence. To date, we have seen no convincing evidence of Iranian weapons or government money here since at least the mid-1990s," the cable says. "In post's (the U.S. Embassy's) assessment, if the (Bahraini government) had convincing evidence of more recent Iranian subversion, it would quickly share it with us."

(Landay reported from Washington.)

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