Bahrain mourners call for toppling of monarchy

Bahraini pro-government protesters shouts slogans during a march supporting the Bahraini leadership in Manama, Bahrain on Friday, February 18. The woman holds a portrait of Bahraini Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, right, and in background is a portrait of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. (AP Photo)
MANAMA, February 18 (AP): Thousands of mourners called for the downfall of Bahrain's ruling monarchy and worshippers at Friday prayers chanted against the king as anger shifted toward the nation's highest authorities 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 the king and his inner circle — at a main Shiite mosque and at burials for those killed in Thursday's crushing attack — reflect an important escalation of the political uprising, which began with calls to weaken the Sunni monarchy's power and address claims of discrimination against the Shiite majority in the tiny island nation.
The mood, however, appears to have turned toward defiance of the entire ruling system after the brutal crackdown 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 roads.
"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 at the funeral for his 23-year-old brother, Mahmoud, who was killed in the pre-dawn sweep through the protest camp in Manama's Pearl Square.
The White House has expressed "strong displeasure" about the rising tensions in Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet and the centerpiece of the Pentagon's efforts to confront growing Iranian military ambitions in the region. At a Shiite mosque in the village of Diraz, an anti-government hotbed, imam Isa Qassim called the Pearl Square assault a "massacre" and thousands of worshippers chanted: "The regime must go."
In a sign of Bahrain's deep divisions, government loyalists filled Manama's Grand Mosque to hear words of support for the monarchy and take part in a post-sermon march protected by security forces. Many arrived with Bahraini flags draped over the traditional white robes worn by Gulf men. Portraits of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa were distributed.
"We must protect our country," said Adnan al-Qattan, the cleric leading prayers. "We are living in dangerous times." He also denounced attempts to "open the doors to evil and foreign influences" — an apparent reference to suspicions that Shiite powerhouse Iran could take advantages of any gains by Bahrain's Shiites, who account for about 70 percent of the population.
The pro-government gathering had many nonnative Bahrainis, including South Asians and Sunni Arabs from around the region. Shiite have long complained of policies to give Sunnis citizenship and jobs, including posts in security forces, to offset the Shiite majority.
Outside a Shiite village mosque, several thousand mourners gathered to bury three of the 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 Shiite funeral rites, many chanted for the removal of king 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.
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.
In another funeral in the Shiite 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 Shiite 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 to try 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 Thursday it was necessary because the demonstrators were "polarizing 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 a.m. — when the fewest number of people would be in the square — "to minimize 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. U.S. Defense 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 U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton asking the embassy to evaluate the leadership potential of the country's top princes.
Death toll rises as Yemen braces for more protests

Sana’a, February 18 (Agencies):
Clashes between police and anti-regime demonstrators in Yemen's southern city of Aden killed three, medics said, as more protests were expected in the capital Sana’a after Friday weekly prayers. An official at Jumhuriah hospital in Aden said that three bodies were sent to the morgue, adding that 19 people were wounded, two of whom were in serious condition and undergoing surgery.
Police had opened fire on thousands of demonstrators who marched on Thursday in Aden's Al-Mansura neighbourhood demanding the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in office for 32 years. The demonstrators, chanting, "Ali, out!", damaged shops, set fire to tyres and placed obstacles in the streets to block traffic, a report said. Police fired tear gas and then live rounds to disperse the protesters, who responded by throwing stones.
Twenty people were wounded and a similar number were arrested in the same neighbourhood on Wednesday when demonstrators stormed the local police station and the central prison, according to a local official. Hundreds of protesters also broke into shops and three hotels, setting car tyres ablaze and blocking roads. State news agency Saba reported on Thursday that Saleh had ordered an investigation "to inquire about the unfortunate riots that have occurred in some parts of" Al-Mansura. The latest deaths bring to five the number of people killed in Aden since Wednesday.
Libya soldiers in Benghazi after overnight protests

Tripoli, February 18 (Agencies):
Soldiers were deployed on the streets of Libya's second city of Benghazi on Friday after thousands of people took to the streets overnight to protest about security forces killing more than 20 protesters. New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch said that according to its sources inside Libya, security forces killed at least 24 people in crackdowns on protests on Wednesday and Thursday. The killings happened after opponents of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's leader for more than 40 years, designated Thursday as a day of protest to try to emulate uprisings in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia which ousted entrenched leaders.
In the early hours of Friday morning, Gaddafi appeared briefly at Green Square in the center of Tripoli where he was surrounded by crowds of supporters, but he did not speak. A resident who lives on Benghazi's main thoroughfare, Nasser Street, told Reuters on Friday morning the city was now quiet, with no more demonstrations.