Blooms replace bullets in Bahrain, while the region hits boiling point

Shias retake Pearl Square as forces withdraw after two days of bloodshed, but there is fury as US munitions are found

Robert Fisk
Sunday 20 February 2011 01:00 GMT

Chanting, singing and waving roses, Bahrain's Shia Muslims ran in their tens of thousands back into Pearl Square in the centre of Manama yesterday after two days of bloodshed as police and soldiers battled to keep them from the streets of the capital. The army's tanks withdrew from the area – Bahrain's version of Cairo's Tahrir Square – in the morning, and then more than a thousand riot police, standing in ranks before the democracy protesters, suddenly retreated. Several of them ran away in front of us, pursued by women in chadors waving flowers.

Just why the Bahraini military, after firing live bullets into the crowds 24 hours earlier, allowed the protesters to take back the square yesterday was a mystery to many of them. Perhaps Crown Prince Salman ben Hamad al-Khalifa, who appealed to both the protesters and his own soldiers and police to show restraint on Friday night, believed that a return to the mini-insurrection in the square earlier this week would persuade the Shia opposition to open negotiations with the royal family. Indeed, Prince Salman appeared on television last night to say that talks with the opposition had begun and that "a new era" had started in the history of Bahrain.

Perhaps the Crown Prince was forced to end the brutality of the security forces after more calls from the White House. "This nation is not for only one section – it is not for Sunnis or Shias," he said in a state television broadcast. "It is for Bahrain and for Bahrainis." Opposition MPs had demanded a withdrawal of army tanks from the square, along with police units, as a condition of opening talks with the royal family. But yesterday afternoon, many of those who stormed joyously towards the giant concrete pearl monument had gone much further in their aspirations, wanting the abolition of the monarchy itself.

Many held posters bearing the faces of Saddam Hussein, ex-Egyptian president Mubarak and former Tunisian dictator Bin Ali, all of the portraits crossed out alongside a picture of King Hamad and the words "Down, Down Hamad." Crowds sang "go away Khalifas" and said that only a new constitution and the trial of police and soldiers who had fired at them with live rounds, rubber-coated steel bullets and tear-gas grenades would satisfy them. There was also a distinct note of anger with America when Shia men and women found – amid the debris of the protesters' camp destroyed by the police early on Thursday – dozens of tear-gas and baton rounds imported from the United States. One rubber-bullet cartridge – and Bahrainis have died from these weapons – carried its manufacturer's identity and military codes: "NonLethal Technologies, Homer City, PA 15748 USA,, Solid Rubber Baton, MP-4-R3." Cartridges from a stun gun carried the coding "DISPO PROP 200M 02-SAE-08 2 BANG Delay 1,5S NIC – 07/07-03 2 KNALL VZ 1,5". It was unclear if this weapon was made in the US, Britain or France – all major arms suppliers to Bahrain.

Many of the protesters who "re-took" the central square yesterday were still asking how Bahraini troops could have shot at their own citizens on Friday. However, it is now clear that many soldiers in the "Bahraini" army are not Bahrainis at all but Pakistanis, many of whom had trained in their own country's army – and who had no hesitation at all in shooting at their own fellow Pakistanis as well as at the Taliban in the massive offensives against the Taliban over the past three years. Speaking Urdu, Pushtu – even Baluch – these men also make up a core unit of the Emirates army. In any event, these soldiers had disappeared from Pearl Square. But are they to return?

Saudi Arabia is only one of the Gulf states fearful that gains by the Shia majority in Bahrain will provoke the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia to demand reforms identical to their co-religionists in the tiny nation that borders the Saudi kingdom. And if President Obama was insisting that there should be no more violence by the Bahraini security forces, you can be sure that the Saudis would have been advising the opposite. Last night, the Shias appeared to have won the right to occupy the square again; but whether the police will allow them to keep their encampment, which was already being resupplied with tents yesterday evening, is quite another matter.

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