The pre-dawn hours in Bahrain's capital city of Manama turned violent for hundreds of anti-government protesters sleeping in the city's Pearl Square: Police forces stormed the peaceful camp just after 3 a.m. on Thursday morning, swinging clubs, firing tear gas, and trampling the tents of stunned demonstrators. By dawn, the square was empty, but the price was steep: Hundreds were injured and at least four demonstrators were dead.
The Bahrain protests are a bloody link in a growing chain: At least 10 countries in the Middle East and North Africa have erupted with protests since demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt toppled their highest leaders in recent weeks.
The swelling unrest promises tense-and sometimes dangerous-confrontations between emboldened protesters and embattled governments determined to cling to power. And the clashes create a diplomatic tightrope for U.S. officials dealing with a complex mix of friends and foes.
The United States considers Bahrain a friend, or at least a crucial ally in the Middle East: The tiny island kingdom sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and Qatar serves as headquarters for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet that patrols Gulf waters. The country filled with high-power banks and Western-style bars also counters the spread of Iranian influence in the region-a critical service for U.S. officials worried about Iran's anti-Western belligerence and nuclear capabilities.
But the absolute monarchy has deep problems: Shiite Muslims that comprise the majority of the population say the Sunni Muslim king and ruling elite discriminate against Shiites in jobs, housing, and education. The protesters' demands are deep and wide: They want fair treatment, better opportunities, a representative form of government, and a constitution written by the people.
Even if King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa was willing to make concessions on jobs and housing, the Thursday morning attacks proved the government isn't willing to cede power. The brutal clampdown sent a clear message: The king plans to stay. Hours after the raid, the government announced it controlled the capital and warned against more gatherings.
Thousands of demonstrators flooded a Bahrain hospital, where doctors tended to hundreds of injured patients. Sadek Al-Ikri, a doctor, told the Associated Press that he was tending to sick protesters in a makeshift clinic at Pearl Square when police descended, tied his hands, and threw him on a bus. "They were beating me so hard I could no longer see," he said. "There was so much blood running from my head. Outside the hospital, demonstrators seemed determine to continue protests, shouting, "The regime must go!"
U.S. officials have stopped short of endorsing that cry. Officials said they oppose the use of violence, and that they would call Bahrain's rulers to urge restraint toward peaceful protesters. But the calls for restraint come with restraint: The Obama administration hopes for stability in a country that serves as a buffer against the unstable Iran. For now, officials walk a diplomatic tightrope-support the rights of Bahrain's demonstrators to protest but say less about their demands.
The administration has been less restrained when it comes to Iranian protests: After tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators poured into Tehran's streets on Monday, President Obama urged protesters to summon "the courage to be able to express their yearning for greater freedoms and a more representative government." The president condemned the Iranian government's response to protesters-security forces cleared the streets using electric batons, wooden bats, pepper gas, and rubber bullets. At least one protester died.
Iran's thuggish response to protesters signaled that revolution won't come nearly as easy in Iran as it did in Egypt. Indeed, government forces have a long history of crushing dissent, and the Iranian parliament on Wednesday called for the execution of opposition leaders.
But many Iranians may not give up so quickly. Opposition leader Mahdi Karroubi seemed unmoved by the threats of parliament, and said he would continue rallying protesters, even if it brings a deadly punishment: "I am ready to pay any price."
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