Manama: Thousands of mourners called for the downfall of Bahrain`s ruling monarchy as burials began on Friday after a deadly assault on pro-reform protesters that has brought Army tanks into the streets of one of the most strategic Western allies in the Gulf.
The cries against Bahrain`s king and his inner circle reflect an escalation of the demands from a political uprising that began just with calls to weaken the Sunni monarchy`s hold on top government posts and address claims of discrimination against the Shi’ite majority in the tiny island nation.
The mood, however, appears to have turned toward defiance of the entire ruling system after the brutal attack on Thursday on a protest encampment in Bahrain`s capital, Manama, which left at least five dead, more than 230 injured and put the nation under emergency-style footing with military forces in key areas and checkpoints on main roadways.
"The regime has broken something inside of me ... All of these people gathered today have had something broken in them," said Ahmed Makki Abu Taki, whose 23-year-old brother Mahmoud was killed in the pre-dawn sweep through the protest camp in Manama`s Pearl Square. "We used to demand for the Prime Minister to step down, but now our demand is for the ruling family to get out."
Outside a village mosque, several thousand mourners gathered to bury three men killed in the crackdown. The first body, covered in black velvet, was passed hand to hand toward a grave as it was being dug.
Amid the Shi’ite funeral rites, many chanted for the removal of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and the entire Sunni dynasty that has ruled for more than two centuries in Bahrain, the first nation in the Gulf to feel the pressure for changes sweeping the Arab world.
"The government has shaken something inside us all and we have lost all trust in it," Mohamed Ali, 40, a civil servant, said as he choked back tears. "Our demands were peaceful and simple at first. We wanted the Prime Minister to step down. Now the demands are harsher and have reached the pinnacle of the pyramid. We want the whole government to fall."
There were no security forces near the mosque on the island of Sitra, where three of those killed had lived.
But in Manama, soldiers guarded the capital`s main areas and placed roadblocks and barbed wire around Pearl Square and other potential gathering sites. Work crews were busy trying to cover up the protest graffiti.
Police vehicles were parked outside the city`s Grand Mosque, where many government loyalists arrived for prayers with Bahraini flags draped over the traditional white robes worn by Gulf men. A march to support the monarchy was planned after the sermon.
The White House has expressed "strong displeasure" about the rising tensions in Bahrain, which is home to the US Navy`s 5th Fleet and the centrepiece of the Pentagon`s efforts to confront growing Iranian military ambitions in the region.
The capital and other areas remained under the close watch of the military and police — which includes various nationalities from around the region under a policy by Bahrain`s ruling system to give citizenship and jobs to other Sunnis to try to offset the Shi’ites, who account for about 70 percent of the population. In another funeral in the Shi’ite village of Karzkan, opposition leaders urged protesters to keep up their fight but not to seek revenge.
"We know they have weapons and they are trying to drag us into violence," said Sheik Ali Salman, the leader of the largest Shi’ite party, Al Wefaq, whose 18 lawmakers have resigned in protest from the 40-seat Parliament to deepen the political crisis.
On Thursday, Bahrain`s leaders banned public gatherings in an attempt to keep the protest movement from re-igniting. But the underlying tensions in Bahrain run even deeper than the rebellions for democracy that began two months ago in Tunisia and later swept away Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and is challenging old-guard regimes in Libya and Yemen.
In the government`s first public comment on the crackdown, Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa said on Thursday it was necessary because the demonstrators were "polarising 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 am — when the fewest number of people would be in the square — "to minimise any possibility of casualties”.
Many of the protesters were sleeping and said they received little warning of the assault. More than 230 people were injured, some seriously.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Washington must expand efforts for political and economic reforms in places such as Bahrain. "There is an urgency to this," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In the midst of the protests, WikiLeaks has released new State Department cables detailing basic Bahraini foreign policy and concerns about regional powerhouse Iran. One intriguing cable also consists of questions sent by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton asking the embassy to evaluate the leadership potential of the country`s top princes.
The cable includes questions about relationships between the princes, their influence on government, views of the United States and whether any of them have histories of drug or alcohol use. There is no record of any answers.
Elsewhere, the European Union and Human Rights Watch urged Bahraini authorities to order security forces to stop attacks on peaceful protesters.
The protesters had called for the monarchy to give up its control over top government posts and all critical decisions and address deep grievances by Shi’ites, who claim they face systematic discrimination and poverty and are effectively blocked from key roles in public service and the military.
Shi’ites have clashed with police before in protests over their complaints. But the growing numbers of Sunnis joining the latest protests have come as a surprise to authorities, said Simon Henderson, a Gulf specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"The Sunnis seem to increasingly dislike what is a very paternalistic government," he said, adding that the crackdown was "symptomatic" of Gulf nations` response to crises.
"As far as the Gulf rulers are concerned, there`s only one proper way with this and that is: be tough and be tough early."
The Bahrain violence forced the cancellation of a lower-tier open-wheel race in Bahrain for Friday and Saturday, and leaves in doubt the March 13 season-opening Formula One race at the same track.
Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone said he will wait until next week to decide whether to proceed with the race. He spoke on Thursday to Crown Prince Sheik Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa about the situation.