A violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in this Persian Gulf kingdom illustrated a troubling new chapter in the unrest sweeping the Middle East, as embattled rulers turn to force to silence calls for reform.
Security forces in Bahrain opened fire on protesters Friday for a second day in a row. In Libya, reports said dozens of people had been killed by government forces trying to put down calls for the ouster of Moammar Kadafi.
The confrontation in Bahrain has been fueled at least in part by sectarian divisions. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where long-ruling authoritarian regimes were the target, predominantly Shiite Muslim protesters here are demanding that the Sunni Muslim royal family give them a larger role in the political and social affairs of the country.
Neighboring Saudi Arabia, which has had its own problems with a restive Shiite population, is watching with concern. The Saudi monarchy is anxious about predominantly Shiite Iran exploiting the tensions in Bahrain to strengthen its influence in the gulf, in Iraq and with Shiite militant groups.
Saudi Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz told BBC Arabic television this week that unless his kingdom’s poor human rights record and lack of political freedoms were solved, “what happened and is still happening in some Arab countries, including Bahrain, could spread to Saudi Arabia, even worse.”
In Washington, a senior U.S. official said there were strong suggestions that Saudi Arabia supported Bahrain’s crackdown.
President Obama reiterated his call for restraint, saying he was “deeply concerned” about reports of violence in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen. He stopped short, though, of an all-out condemnation of the Bahrainis, a close U.S. ally.
Human Rights Watch said in a report Thursday that 24 people had been killed in Libya in several days of anti-government protests. News reports said dozens of bodies were brought to one hospital in eastern Libya on Friday.
North Africa experts say the situation in Libya remains highly volatile, with the unrest focused mostly in the east, which may have less to do with the depth of grievance there than with the power and presence of the security forces in the capital, Tripoli.
In Bahrain, the monarchy issued a call for calm late Friday. King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa said the government was inviting “all gracious citizens from all sections” to come together for talks to work out the problems that have thrown Bahrain into turmoil.
The statement, read over state-run television, made no allusion to the violence, but appeared to be a calculated move to end it.
Earlier, the crown prince issued his own call for dialogue, and the king’s statement urged Bahrainis to cooperate with that effort. Some protesters speculated that the royal family, long reported to be split over the approach to the kingdom’s Shiites, may now be divided on how to handle the unrest, with the king caught in the middle.
It wasn’t immediately clear how those who have protested the Sunni government’s hold on power would respond to the call. Many Bahrainis were shocked by security forces’ violent dispersal of protesters, since the king had expressed sorrow over two shooting deaths that occurred earlier in the week.
Protesters, the majority of them Shiite, are demanding equal rights in the face of what they feel is longtime discrimination. A former member of the army said he had been sidelined in his career because he was not Sunni. A female doctor said she was forced to take a back seat to doctors from Egypt and Jordan.
But to the king’s backers, the dissenters are troublemakers.
Each group has its code words: Bahraini anti-government protesters whisper that Saudi security forces have been brought in to crush them. Shiite protesters speculated that those demonstrating in favor of the regime and the status quo were Sunnis from Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
The Sunni Bahrainis speak darkly of the influence of the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
Leslie Campbell, Middle East director for the National Democratic Institute, said in an interview from Cairo that the two days of violence may have forever changed the willingness of Bahrain’s Shiites to put up with rule by a Sunni minority.
“The question now is, has there been a fundamental change -- has the violence changed forever that calculation?” Campbell said.
Troops fired on marchers shortly after dusk Friday when they attempted to enter Pearl Square, the traffic roundabout in bustling Manama that has become their stage for airing grievances.
At least 50 people were wounded, according to two doctors at Salmaniya Medical Complex, where bloodied survivors of the clash converged for treatment. Demonstrators continued their protest at the emergency room entrance.
The injured said they had been participating in a peaceful march from a village in mourning for the victim of a fatal shooting Monday. They marched from the village of Daih into Manama and planned to cross the edge of Pearl Square.
Gunfire erupted when the protesters reached the square; it was sporadic at first, then more sustained. Security forces fired into the surrounding streets leading into the traffic roundabout.
Ambulances raced to the scene but had difficulty reaching those who had fallen in the barrage of bullets and tear gas, said marchers who made their way to the hospital with the injured.
“Everybody was on the ground. They were shooting at the heads and chest,” said Mohamed Nabi, 27, who was with two friends in the emergency room. “We were chanting, ‘Peaceful, peaceful!’ but the government was willing to have a massacre. We weren’t afraid. We were willing to die in this way.”
Ali Hasan Arafat lay bare-chested on a stretcher, breathing heavily from the effects of tear gas. The gas was so caustic, he said, that he was blinded and ran into a signpost, injuring his head.
One doctor complained that the army had detained several ambulance drivers.
Rather than break its will, the crackdown appeared to energize the Shiite community. At the hospital, people cheered when a policeman said he was quitting the force to join them. Women and children headed to the facility intent on helping support the protests.
Opposition politicians sounded a defiant note before the violence Friday. Said Sheik Ali Salman, a leader of the main Shiite opposition Wefaq party: “It’s the right of the people to demonstrate at any time.”
Times staff writers Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo, Paul Richter and David S. Cloud in Washington, Borzou Daraghi in New York and Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles contributed to this report.