Phil Weymouth/AFP/Getty Images
Bahraini protesters wave the national flag and chant slogans as they gather Wednesday at Pearl Square in the capital city of Manama.
Bahraini protesters wave the national flag and chant slogans as they gather Wednesday at Pearl Square in the capital city of Manama. Phil Weymouth/AFP/Getty Images
The main opposition group in Bahrain says at least two people are dead Thursday after police stormed a square occupied by anti-government protesters, as unrest continued to spread across the Middle East and Northern Africa.
The group, Al Wefaq, says two men were killed when riot police used tear gas and rubber bullets to drive out thousands of demonstrators from Pearl Square in the center of the capital, Manama.
Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images
Libyan pro-government supporters hold a portrait of leader Moammar Gadhafi during a rally Wednesday in Tripoli.
Libyan pro-government supporters hold a portrait of leader Moammar Gadhafi during a rally Wednesday in Tripoli. Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images
Hospitals across the city are on alert for more causalities. The square had been the hub for protests for sweeping political reforms by Bahrain's ruling monarchy.
There was no official word on deaths or injuries from Bahrain's authorities.
Hundreds of security forces carrying truncheons and firing rubber bullets moved into Pearl Square, driving out demonstrators and destroying a makeshift encampment that had become the hub for demands for sweeping political changes in the kingdom.
After police regained control of the square, they continued to chase protesters through side streets.
The blow by authorities marked a dramatic shift in the protests. It appeared Bahrain's leaders sought to contain security forces after clashes Monday that left at least two people dead and brought sharp criticism from Western allies, including the U.S.
NPR's Peter Kenyon reported that Wednesday's protests in the city were peaceful. Some of the protesters at Pearl Square sipped tea or smoked water pipes, while the women sat mainly in a separate area, a sea of black in their traditional dress.
Shiites, who make the bulk of the nation's Muslims, say they have no desire for an Iran-style Islamic government, but the sectarian divide with minority Sunni is strong.
At prayers Wednesday, an imam encouraged the protesters to stand fast.
"Be careful and be concerned for your country, and remember that the regime will try to rip this country from your hand," he said. "But if we must leave it in coffins, so be it."
Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa appeared on national television Tuesday to apologize for the two deaths and to promise reforms. The country, one of Washington's most strategic allies in the Gulf, is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
The protests in Bahrain began Monday as a cry for the country's Sunni monarchy to loosen its grip on public freedoms and open more opportunities for the country's majority Shiites, who have long complained of being blocked from decision-making roles.
But the opposition's demands have steadily increased. Many protesters are calling for the government to provide more jobs and better housing and free all political detainees.
"Ultimately what these people would like is to turn Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy ... devolve a lot of power away from the king, making it something along the lines of what Britain has," Kenyon said.
Crackdown In Libya
The accounts of violence from Bahrain came as police fired tear gas and water cannons at hundreds of anti-government protesters in Libya's second-largest city Wednesday.
The Libyan demonstration in the port city of Benghazi began Tuesday and lasted until the early hours Wednesday, according to eyewitnesses and Ashur Shamis, a Libyan opposition activist in London.
Witnesses said protesters chanted "Down, down to corruption and to the corrupt" and hurled epithets at the country's leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Police quickly moved in to break up the protests, firing rubber bullets, Shamis said.
A Libyan security official told The Associated Press that 14 people were injured in Benghazi, including 10 policemen. The official said protesters were armed with knives and stones, but witnesses said the march was peaceful until it came under attack from a pro-government faction.
In the southern city of Zentan, 75 miles south of the capital, Tripoli, several hundred protesters marched through the streets, set fire to a police station and set up a tent camp in the city center, according to Switzerland-based activist Fathi al-Warfali.
Al-Warfali said the protesters in Zentan called for the downfall of the Gadhafi regime. Resentment against Gadhafi runs high in the city of 100,000 people because it is home to many of the jailed army officers who took part in a failed coup in 1993.
Libyan television showed video of state-orchestrated rallies involving thousands of Gadhafi supporters.
Students Blocked From Joining Yemen Rallies
In Yemen, some 2,000 policemen, including plainclothes officers, fired in the air and blocked thousands of students at Sanaa University from joining thousands of other protesters elsewhere in the capital during a sixth day of demonstrations.
Much like in Egypt, Yemeni opposition leaders used social media to spread the word and help organize anti-government rallies. A call put out on Facebook and Twitter urged people to take part in "one million people" rallies to be held in various cities during a "day of rage."
President Ali Abdullah Saleh has tried to defuse protesters' anger by declaring that he will not seek re-election in 2013 and will not attempt to maneuver his son into position to succeed him.
Nonetheless, protesters chanted slogans against the president's son, Ahmed, on Wednesday. Witnesses said police chained the university's iron gates in order to prevent students from pouring into adjacent streets. They also said at least four protesters were wounded in scuffles with police.
Other demonstrations unfolded in the Yemeni port city of Aden and in Taaz, where thousands of protesters shouted, "Down ... down with Ali Abdullah Saleh!"
Iranian Opposition Leaders Swear To 'Pay Any Price'
Ali Al-Alak/AFP/Getty Images
Flames engulfed an Iraqi government building in the southern city of Kut after it was set on fire by protesters demanding the provincial governor's resignation.
Flames engulfed an Iraqi government building in the southern city of Kut after it was set on fire by protesters demanding the provincial governor's resignation. Ali Al-Alak/AFP/Getty Images
Meanwhile, opposition leaders in Iran — who turned out tens of thousands of their ranks for street protests Monday — vowed to "pay any price" in pursuit of democratic change after hard-line lawmakers called for them to be tried and executed.
"I declare that I am not afraid of any threat," pro-reform leader Mahdi Karroubi said. Karroubi has been effectively under house arrest since he first called for the demonstrations earlier this month.
"As I've demonstrated in serving the nation as a soldier [political activist] since 1962, I am ready to pay any price in this graceful path," he said.
Violence Amid Scattered Protests In Iraq
Small groups of Iraqis, taking their cue from Egypt and Tunisia, have been protesting nearly every day over unemployment, corruption and a lack of services.
About 2,000 demonstrators attacked government offices in a southern Iraqi province, ripping up pavement stones to hurl at a regional council headquarters.
At least one protester was killed and dozens wounded during the rally in the Southern city of Kut. Officials said security guards opened fire after protesters set the government offices ablaze. The rally was focused on a lack of basic services such as electricity and water, and protesters were demanding the local governor's resignation.
Iraq is one of the few Middle East countries with a democratically elected government, but its leaders have not been immune from the anger engulfing the region.
The country's recently elected officials have been making daily promises to improve the lives of their constituents. Still, opposition groups have vowed that the anti-government displays will continue.
Analysts said they doubt that the protests will evolve into a nationwide movement, primarily because Iraq already is rid of one dictator: Saddam Hussein.
With reporting from NPR's Peter Kenyon in Manama, Bahrain; Eric Westervelt in Cairo; and Kelly McEvers in Baghdad. This story also contains material from The Associated Press