Image: Medical workers react to news that paramedic crews at protest were attacked by pollice in Bahrain
Mazen Mahdi  /  EPA
Medical staff at Salmaniya Medical Complex march near the hospital in response to news that their paramedic crews and doctors were attacked by police after police stormed the protest site in Lulu Square in Manama, Bahrain on Thursday.
msnbc.com news services

Bahrain's streets were mostly empty after bloody clampdown, but thousands defied authorities by marching in cities in Libya and Yemen as the wave of political unrest continued in the wake of uprisings that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.

The willingness to resort to violence against largely peaceful demonstrators was a sign of how deeply the monarchy fears the repercussions of a prolonged wave of protests.

U.S. officials taken by surprise at the crackdown urged government leaders to show restraint in the country that is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet and a strategic ally on oil supply lines from the Gulf.

As anti-government protests rock the Middle East, the White House, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Pentagon all urged Bahrain's leaders to pull back after police attacked demonstrators in the Gulf kingdom's worst violence in decades.

Clinton said she expressed her "deep concern" in a telephone call with Bahrain's Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa and emphasized that violence should not occur on Friday, when many in Bahrain may attend funerals of those killed or prayer services.

Story: Egypt, Bahrain protests differ in key ways

People had been gathering in Pearl Square since Monday in an attempt to emulate the successful protest camp on Cairo's Tahrir Square, but police cracked down in predawn hours Thursday.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who is in Bahrain, said that more than 600 people had been treated for their injuries and an opposition lawmaker, Ibrahim Mattar, told Reuters that 60 people were missing.

U.S. officials: Yemen, Bahrain, Iran could be next Egypt

"Bahrain is a friend and an ally and has been for many years," Clinton told reporters. "We call on restraint from the government, (and) to keep its commitment to hold accountable those who have utilized excessive force."

Clinton, who has called on Arab leaders to heed the complaints of their citizens, said Bahrain's leaders should do the same and implement promised democratic reforms.

"We urge a return to a process that will result in real, meaningful changes for the people there," she said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke by phone Thursday morning with Crown Prince Salman of Bahrain, according to Pentagon officials quoted by NBC News. "He discussed the current security situation with the Deputy Supreme Commander of the Bahraini Defense Force," they said, without further elaboration.

Pentagon and U.S. military officials told NBC News they were "surprised" by the violent Bahraini police crackdown.

"We're concerned over the crackdown," and "watching events very closely" one senior official said.

Military personnel at 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain are not on a "heightened" state of alert, although they have all been instructed to exercise caution and prudence when off base, officials told NBC News.

Ban Ki-Moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, said the reports from Bahrain overnight were "deeply troubling" and also urged nonviolence.

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Police firing teargas and buckshot moved in at around 3 a.m. local time Thursday (7 p.m. Wednesday ET), dispersing some 2,000 people, including women and children. "They are killing us!" one man said after the operation began.

"This is real terrorism," said Abdul Jalil Khalil, of Bahrain's main Shiite opposition party Wefaq. "Whoever took the decision to attack the protest was aiming to kill." Mattar said that Wefaq's lawmakers had decided to resign from parliament in protest.

Government: Get off the streets
Bahrain's leaders banned public gatherings and sent tanks into the streets Thursday, intensifying a crackdown that killed five anti-government protesters, wounded more than 200 and turned a hospital into a cauldron of anguish and rage against the monarchy. Along with two who died in clashes with police Monday, the new killings brought the death toll this week in Bahrain to seven.

Barbed wire was in place on streets leading to the square Thursday morning, where police cleaned up flattened protest tents and trampled banners.

The Interior Ministry declared the protest camp "illegal" and warned Bahrainis to stay off the streets.

"The security forces have stressed that they will take every strict measure and deterrent necessary to preserve security and general order," an Interior Ministry spokesman said on Bahraini television Thursday afternoon local time.

Police action was necessary to pull Bahrain back from the "brink of a sectarian abyss," the Gulf Arab state's Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said on Thursday. "It was a very important step that had to happen, police took every care possible," Sheikh Khaled said at a news conference also attended by the United Arab Emirates' foreign minister and the secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a loose economic and political bloc of Gulf Arab states.

Gulf Arab foreign ministers meeting in the Bahrain capital on Thursday evening planned to discuss the unrest in the Gulf island kingdom, state news agencies said earlier on Thursday.

A statement from Bahrain's defense forces, quoted by the Qatar news agency, said about 50 security force members had been wounded by demonstrators using "swords, knives and daggers."

"Security forces had to fire teargas and stun grenades to avoid losses," the statement said, adding the military had deployed in Manama "under orders to take all necessary measure to preserve peace and stability for citizens and residents."

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa offered condolences to relatives of two men killed earlier this week and promised to investigate.

View from U.S.
Gates said the U.S. has been encouraging reforms in the region for some time.

"The truth is I think the U.S. has consistently — primarily privately, but also publicly — encouraged these regimes for years to undertake political and economic reforms because the pressures were building," Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "And now they need to move on with it and there is an urgency to this."

Analysts said the wave of unrest has so concerned leaders in the Gulf that they are willing to risk bloodshed.

"It was one thing when it was happening in Tunisia and Egypt and another when it arrives on their doorstep," said Toby Jones, an expert on Bahrain at Rutgers University. "The (Gulf rulers) are closing ranks now and showing how they are prepared to deal with challenges to their power. Their first instinct is to act quickly. It may be messy, but they don't want this to linger.

U.S. officials say the key issue regarding the Bahrain security situation is how much "tolerance" officials have for continuing demonstrations in heart of Manama, NBC News' Robert Windrem reported.

"It is uncertain," said a U.S. official, "whether such a small country, with such small security forces, can continue to show tolerance for increasingly large demonstrations. This isn't Egypt where the leadership knew it had a reserve of a million men in uniform, whether military or security forces, and knew it could if it had to retake the square."

A U.S. official told NBC News that the Obama administration is not backing away from its strong alliance with Bahrain, but that the United States does plan to hold the monarchy accountable for the "heavy-handed tactics" against protesters.

"There are specific red lines" that cannot be crossed, the official said, adding that the U.S. will not tolerate the violence seen Thursday morning.

The official said that for now the U.S. is going to help Bahrain "through some tough love" and honest dialogue. "We are going to try to help them, but we are going to call a spade a spade," the official said, adding that the violence "surprised" the U.S. administration.

Blood on highway
CNBC television news, citing U.S. military sources, said there was a significant amount of blood on King Faisal Highway, in a different part of the city than Pearl Square.

It reported that authorities were confiscating camera phones from individuals suspected photographing affected areas.Activists circulated Twitter messages telling people to delete images to avoid protesters being identified.

Hours after Pearl Square was cleared, the military announced a ban on gatherings and said on state TV that it had "key parts" of the capital under its control.

Police prevented people from getting close to the square, which features a 300-foot (90-meter) monument with a giant representation of a pearl atop it, a testament to the island's pearl-diving past.

The smashed tents, broken chairs and other debris that was swept up by authorities was seen dumped in the yard of a police station.

Salmaniya hospital was thrown into chaos immediately after the police raid. A steady stream of dozens of wounded from the square were brought in by ambulances and private cars. Nurses rushed in men and women on stretchers, their heads bleeding, arms in casts, faces bruised. At the entrance, women wrapped in black robes embraced each other and wept.

The Health Ministry put the number of wounded at 231.

Many families were separated in the chaos. An Associated Press photographer saw police rounding up lost children and taking them into vehicles.

Outside the medical complex, dozens of protesters chanted: "The regime must go" and burned pictures of the king.

"We are even angrier now. They think they can clamp down on us, but they have made us angrier," Makki Abu Taki, whose son was killed in the assault, shouted in the hospital morgue.

"We will take to the streets in larger numbers and honor our martyrs. The time for Al Khalifa has ended," he said.

Helicopters clattered over the city and tow-trucks dragged away cars abandoned by protesters, their tires squealing on the Tarmac because the brakes were still on.

Elsewhere in Manama, life went on as usual. In one smart area, foreigners sat in cafes or strolled in jogging clothes.

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Earlier, Kristof said in a series of Twitter messages that the Bahrain government had ordered ambulances to stop going out. He said 10 ambulance paramedics had been attacked by Bahrain police. "I interviewed them, saw their injuries," he wrote.

"Nurse told me she saw handcuffed prisoner beaten by police, then executed with gun," Kristof added.

An ambulance driver claimed a Saudi Arabian army officer had "held gun to his head" and threatened to kill him if he helped the injured, Kristof said in a Twitter message. BBC News reported that a source close to Bahrain's rulers had denied claims that Saudi Arabian troops were involved, but added they were ready to help if needed.

Kristof said the hospital had seen more than 600 people injured in the protests by early Thursday morning.

Video: Bahrain responds to protests with violence

Calm before storming
Mohammed, a 28-year-old banker who asked his last name not be published out of fear for his safety, told msnbc.com that the mood at Pearl Square on the evening before the police attack was calm, with people barbecuing, distributing water, and sitting with their laptops. No one anticipated clashes with police, he said.

“They said that they did warn the protesters, and that’s not very accurate,” he said. “They were armed with rubber bullets, bean bag rounds, and long sticks. The police unit head requested everybody back off from a very small speaker, from 700 meters away. It was 3 a.m. A lot of the protesters were asleep; they did not give them enough time to respond. It was complete chaos.”

Mohammed said a crowd staged a sit-in at the medical complex where the wounded and dead were taken.

“Between 1994 and 2000, we had huge tension in Bahrain. When a marcher was executed by the regime, the government would not allow a burial procession because that’s when people gather and it turns violent. They used to take the body and bury it themselves. They are fearing the same thing today. People knew they had to be at the hospital, or else they might lose the chance of seeing the body or saying goodbye.”

Bahrain learned a lot from Egypt and Tunisia, he said.

“The protests in Bahrain for the past 40 years were nothing like this. It was just youth here and there. They would get into clashes with the government police, and basically be sent back home. But now it’s peaceful, it’s organized, and they were very, very determined to stay [in Pearl Square] for as long as it takes.”

“International news agencies, when they look at a protest of 3,000 or 4,000 people, they think it’s a small thing. Bahrain has a population of 500,000. We cannot get a million like Egypt can. There are people who have a good life. It’s not a movement for food or for power, even though those are some of the demands. Its’ a movement for the constitution, and to get more of what the country and the economy can give to us.”

Doctor beaten
Dr. Sadek Akikri, 44, said he was tending to sick protesters at a makeshift medical tent in the square when the police stormed in. He said he was tied up and severely beaten, then thrown on a bus with others."

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"They were beating me so hard I could no longer see. There was so much blood running from my head," he said. "I was yelling, 'I'm a doctor. I'm a doctor.' But they didn't stop."

He said the police beating him spoke Urdu, the main language of Pakistan.

A pillar of the protest demands is to end the Sunni regime's practice of giving citizenship to other Sunnis from around the region to try to offset the demographic strength of Shiites. Many of the new Bahrainis are given security posts.

As the crackdown began, demonstrators in the square described police swarming in through a cloud of eye-stinging tear gas.

Many families were separated in the chaos. An Associated Press photographer saw police rounding up lost children and taking them into vehicles.

Slideshow: 2011 Bahrain uprising (on this page)

ABC News said its correspondent, Miguel Marquez, was caught in the crowd and beaten by men with billy clubs, although he was not badly injured.

Race called off
A lower-tier open-wheel race in Bahrain was called off Thursday amid the crushing response by riot police. The cancellation comes less than a month before the season-opening Formula One race at the same track.

The Bahrain Grand Prix is scheduled for March 13, with F1 workers due in the country 10 days earlier.

Organizers said the GP2 Asia Series race set for Friday and Saturday was canceled at the request of the Bahrain Motorsport Federation because of "force majeure" — a French expression referring to uncontrollable events.

Protesters' demands
The protesters' demands have two main objectives: Force the ruling Sunni monarchy to give up its control over top government posts and all critical decisions, and address deep grievances held by the country's majority Shiites who claim they face systematic discrimination and are effectively blocked from key roles in public service and the military.

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Any prolonged crisis opens the door for a potential flashpoint between Iran and its Arab rivals in the Gulf.

Bahrain's ruling dynasty is closely allied to Saudi Arabia and the other Arab regimes in the Gulf.

Shiite hard-liners in Iran have often expressed kinship and support for Bahrain's Shiite majority, which accounts for 70 percent of the island's 500,000 citizens.

NBC News, The Associated Press, Reuters and msnbc.com's Elizabeth Chuck contributed to this report.

Video: Clinton rebukes Bahrain for deadly crackdown

  1. Closed captioning of: Clinton rebukes Bahrain for deadly crackdown

    >>> good evening. there's never been a time like this, especially not in the middle east . but it's an unmistakable wave of empowerment, people driven protests now in places, three countries for starters, yemen, bahrain and libya, that are not used to this sort of thing and are reacting accordingly. in some cases, violently. in libya alone, reports that 20 protesters were killed. the biggest news, an overnight crackdown. police killing protesters in bahrain , a small island chain of a nation. population about 1 million . almost half the people there from other countries. the whole nation roughly four times the size of washington, d.c. the king and the ruling structure, sunni muslim , but the population, 70% shiite. importantly, it's the home of the entire u.s. navy fifth fleet of vital importance to the united states . our chief foreign correspondent, richard engel , has made his way there from cairo. he's with us tonight from our cnbc bureau in bahrain . richard, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. this crackdown today was in many ways a preemptive strike by bahrain , this country's way of saying this small but strategically important country will not go the way of egypt and tunis tunisia, but tonight many here feel the crackdown went too far. the protesters are calling what happened an unprovoked massacre. after unrest that had been building all week. on monday, a demonstrator was killed by security forces . at his funeral the next day, another protester was killed. [ speaking in foreign language ]

    >> reporter: bahrain 's king made a rare address to the nation, offering condolences and calling for an investigation. [ chanting ]

    >> reporter: but the protesters didn't accept it. they called for an egypt-style sit-in in manama's pearl square. thousands gathered last night. it was peaceful, they were intense. quiet but defiant protests of men, women and families. but at 3:00 a.m . this morning, the crackdown began. police and armored vehicles moved on the square. riot police rushed in, swinging clubs, firing buckshot and bottles of tear gas . there was absolute panic. we did not harm anyone, we were sleeping when they surprised us and attacked us, he said. some protesters claim they were hit by buckshot at close range. others were crushed in a stampede, as protesters scrambled to escape. at least four people were killed and hundreds injured. it was an emotional scene at the hospital today. we watched with our own eyes as they killed the protesters, this woman said. but today the government offered a different version of events. the foreign minister said troops woke the protesters, warned them to leave, and then left side streets open so they could escape.

    >> police took every care possible, but this is -- there is nothing that guarantees that a mishap could happen, and that, unfortunately, led to death.

    >> reporter: state television also showed weapons it claims were found in the protesters' tents and pictures of bahraini police injured by the protesters. but this is not just a pro- democracy movement against the government. the protesters are shiite, and claim they're treated like second class citizens by the sunni royal family , a sectarian struggle that has the region on edge. bahrain 's powerful patron, saudi arabia , a sunni strong hold, would do almost anything to prevent shiite empowerment in the middle east . the united states also uses the fifth fleet based here to protect the oil lanes of the persian gulf and keep a close watch on iran. today secretary clinton offered a careful rebuke of bahrain 's crackdown.

    >> we call on restraint from the government.

    >> reporter: but bahrain appeared to show little restraint last night. the potential flashpoint tomorrow, brian, when families receive the bodies of the victims.

    >> richard engel starting us off in bahrain tonight. richard, thank

Photos: March

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  1. Bahraini Shiites women attend the funeral of Bahiya al-Aradi, holding portraits of her, in central Manama on Monday, March 22. Aradi, 51, went missing on March 16 evening, and a car that she drove was found the day after in al-Qadam village, west of Manama, with bloodstains on the driver's seat. She was pronounced dead on March 21 after being shot in the head. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Bahraini opposition protesters carry the body of Abdulrasool al-Hajiri during his burial ceremony in Buri village, north of the capital, Manama, on Monday, March 21. Relatives accused the military of executing al-Hajiri after grabbing him at a checkpoint outside the village. Meanwhile, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa praised Saudi-led forces that he called in to help quell unprecedented unrest. (Mazen Mahdi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, right, meets with officers of the Gulf Cooperation Council's Peninsula Shield force late on March 20 in Manama. The monarch said Bahrain has foiled a "foreign plot" to target Gulf countries, in a possible reference to Iran, after security forces crushed Shiite-led unrest, the state news agency reported. (BNA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. An injured Pakistani man takes refuge at a Pakistan club in Manama on March 19. He said that he was attacked by Shiite Bahrainis in a Shiite neighborhood on March 19. According to Pakistani men, Shiites have been attacking Asian nationals, accusing them of taking away their jobs. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Young women look at welts on the body of a young man walking through the streets of Daih, a Shiite suburb of Manama, on March 19. The youth said he was returning from nearby Sanabis, another Shiite area, where he said he and several others were beaten by riot police. (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Bahraini soldiers with the portrait of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on their armored personnel carrier are seen at a checkpoint near Pearl Square in Manama on March 19. (Sergey Ponomarev / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. The sisters of activist Ahmed Farhan mourn over his body in Sitra on March 18. Farhan, 29, was killed March 15 when police cracked down on opposition protesters in the town. (James Lawler Duggan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. An unidentified man shows the bullet that was allegedly pulled from the head of killed opposition protester Ahmed Farhan before his burial on March 18. (Mazen Mahdi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Shiite mourners wrap the body of Ahmed Farhan before his funeral in Sitra on March 18. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Shiite mourners carry the coffin of Ahmed Farhan during his funeral in Sitra on March 18, as thousands of anti-regime activists defied martial law to renew their pro-democracy protests. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A Shiite woman stands in front of the national flag as she watches the funeral procession of Ahmed Farhan on March 18. (Sergey Ponomarev / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A combination of pictures show the statue in the center of Pearl Square in Manama being torn down on March 18. The authorities demolished the statue, focal point and symbol of weeks of pro-democracy protests in the Gulf island kingdom. Drills and diggers cut away at the six bases of the statue for hours, until it collapsed into a mound of rubble and steel bars. Trucks stood by to take away the debris. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. People walk past a car damaged with shotgun pellets in Sitra on March 17. (James Lawler Duggan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The Bahraini National Guard arrest a man who was later identified as journalist Alex Delmar-Morgan of the Wall Street Journal as he walked towards Pearl Square in Manama on March 16. Several hours later, Morgan was released. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Anti-government protestors gesture towards military vehicles near Pearl Square in Manama on March 16 after police killed at least two protesters and wounded dozens more as they assaulted a peaceful protest camp in the capital's Pearl Square, an opposition party official said. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Black smoke billows from burning tents in Pearl Square in Manama on March 16 after soldiers and riot police used tear gas and armored vehicles to drive out hundreds of anti-government protesters occupying the square. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Black smoke billows in Pearl Square on March 16 after a full-scale assault on the protesters occupying the square was launched at daybreak by soldiers and police. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces move in to Pearl Square to remove anti-government protesters on March 16. The GCC is a union comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Doctors form a human chain at Salmaniya Hospital in Manama fearing an attack by riot police on March 15. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A man from the Shiite Muslim village of Sitra, south of the Bahraini capital Manama is brought to the Salmaniya hospital late on March 15 after he was shot with pellets of buckshot, as the king imposed a state of emergency after bringing in foreign troops to help quell anti-regime protests. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Thousands of anti-government protesters march to the Saudi embassy in Manama on March 15, a day after a Saudi-led military force entered the country to defend its Sunni monarchy from a Shiite-led protest movement. The yellow sign center foreground reads: "The Saudi army came to protect the illegitimate government, not the aggrieved, legitimate nation" and the banner at right says: "The Saudi army's entry to Bahrain is an occupation we will never accept." (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Female anti-government protesters gather outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Manama on Tuesday, March 15. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Saudi Arabian troops cross the causeway leading to Bahrain on March 14. About 1,000 Saudi soldiers entered Bahrain to protect government facilities, a Saudi official source said, a day after mainly Shi'ite protesters overran police and blocked roads. (Reuters TV ) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Protesters confront riot police on a flyover near the Pearl Square in Manama on March 13. Bahraini riot police fired thick clouds of tear gas and pushed back protesters who blocked a main thoroughfare leading to the Bahrain Financial Harbour, a key business district in the Gulf Arab region's banking center. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Protesters set up makeshift roadblocks in Manama on March 13. Bahraini police clashed with demonstrators trying to occupy Manama's banking center, as protests spread from a peaceful sit-in to the heart of the strategic Gulf state's business district. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A protester gestures in front of riot police on an overpass near Pearl roundabout in Manama on March 13. (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Opposition protesters take cover after being fired upon by police during an opposition march on Riffa, south of the capital Manama, on March 11. Police clashed with protesters on the outskirts of Riffa after pro-government supporters were able to pass through police lines and attack the opposition march, leaving hundreds injured according to the health ministry, mainly due to tear-gas inhalation. (Mazen Mahdi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Protesters holding signs that read: "Down With Al-Khalifa" (left and right) stand in front of the U.S. embassy during a demonstration where they accused the U.S. government of supporting dictatorships, in Manama on March 7. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A protester kisses a police officer after being told to clear the way for a female driver in Manama on March 3. The protester was blocking the road during an anti-government rally. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Anti-government protesters gesture in front of the main gate of the Interior Ministry during demonstrations in Manama on March 2. Protests in Bahrain are starting to make forays away from the central square in Manama and into different parts of the city. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Anti-government protesters march toward the Pearl roundabout, March 1, in the capital of Manama. Tens of thousands of Bahrainis, largely Shiites, participated in the march urging unity among Sunnis and Shiites in demanding political reform. (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: TOPSHOTS

Bahraini Shiites women attend t
    Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (31) 2011 Bahrain uprising - March
  2. Image: Bahraini protesters sit and rest in their tent at Pearl Square in Bahraini capital of Manama
    Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters
    Slideshow (63) 2011 Bahrain uprising - February

Interactive: The Egypt effect

  1. Above: Interactive The Egypt effect
  2. Timeline Recent Middle East unrest

Explainer: Tiny nation, big history: What you need know about Bahrain

  • As the Gulf nation reacts to days of unrest, a look at its role on the world stage

  • Geography

    Image: Satellite image of Bahrain
    Universal Images Group  /  Getty Images
    Bahrain, Middle East, Asia, True Colour Satellite Image
    Bahrain, an archipelago in the Persian Gulf, is just 3.5 times the size of Washington, D.C according to the latest estimate published in the CIA's World Factbook.

    Dwarfed by neighboring nations Saudi Arabia, Qatar and United Arab Emirates, Bahrain is the 187th largest on the globe — just outranking the island of Dominica — when you sort world nations by total area (land and water areas).

    For comparison: the U.S., the 3rd largest nation in the world, boasts a total area of nearly 3,794,100 square miles while Bahrain can claim just 293 square miles as its own.

  • Demographics

    Nearly 235,108 of the nation’s 738,004 residents are non-nationals, according to a July 2010 estimate.

    A Bahraini man uses his mobile phone as
    Adam Jan  /  AFP/Getty Images
    A Bahraini man uses his mobile phone as he leaves the Al-Fateh Mosque, the biggest mosque in the Gulf monarchy that can accommodate 7000 worshippers, in Manama on September 17, 2010. AFP PHOTO/ADAM JAN (Photo credit should read ADAM JAN/AFP/Getty Images)

    A large portion of Bahrainians — about 70 percent — belong to the Shiite branch of Islam, while the ruling family is Sunni.

    According to a report by Peter Beaumont in Britain's Guardian newspaper, the sectarian divide is a "key difference" between Bahrain's protests and those in Tunisia and Egypt.

    "The capital Manama is largely Sunni, while the Shiite population has been historically concentrated in the poorer rural areas where – according to some estimates – in some villages between one third and a half of the residents are unemployed."

  • Government

    Bahrain gained its independence from Britain in 1971. Shortly thereafter, a parliament and constitution – aimed at ensuring basic rights and equality – was put forth. The legislative process was immediately marred by tension and mistrust.

    Wary of what Foreign Policy magazine referred to as the “rising authoritarianism of the ruling family,” the legislative body and monarchy clashed over transparency and a measure known as “The Security Law.”

    The decree stipulated that political prisoners – who were primarily Shiite – "could be held for up to three years without charge for anything deemed threatening to the country." When parliament balked at passing the measure in 1975, the monarchy disbanded the body and passed the law on its own.

    In the years that followed, long-running tensions between Shiite and Sunni and populations continued to simmer, until riots and the death of the king opened the door for reform in 1999.

    Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa king of Bahrain
    Scott Olson  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa king of Bahrain speaks to US Defense Secretary Robert Gates during a visit to Safryia Palace on December 12, 2008 in Malkia, Bahrain. Gates is currently on a multi-day tour of the Middle East meeting with regional commanders and troops. AFP PHOTO/POOL/Scott Olson (Photo credit should read SCOTT OLSON/AFP/Getty Images)

    King Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa’s death saw his son, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (right) rise to power, and prolong the family's grip on the power, which began in 1783.

    Attempts to soothe Shiite anger and establish harmony quickly followed, but real power, to this day, remains with the monarchy.

    By title, the nation is a constitutional monarchy, in which a sovereign ruler is guided by a constitution that spells out the monarch’s rights and responsibilities – with the king’s son, Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa waiting in the wings as the heir to the crown.

  • Resources

    Facing limited oil reserves, Bahrain has transformed itself into an international banking hub.

    A 2007 study by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia found that the nation – the smallest of the region – boasted its fastest growing economy thanks in part to an influx of foreign investors. The calendar’s turn to 2011 saw the nation’s economy deemed the “freest” in the Middle East according to a study by the Index of Economic Freedom by the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal.

    Taking advantage of its location next to OPEC heavyweight Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has also turned itself into a playground for Saudis, many of whom frequent the nation’s Western-style bars, hotels and beaches.

    Despite punching well above its financial weight, the nation still struggles with unemployment, especially among the young. The latest estimates put the jobless figure at 15 percent.

  • International relations

    Two U.S. Navy Vessels Collide
    U.s. Navy  /  Getty Images
    In this handout image provided by the U.S. Navy, The Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Hartford (SSN 768) pulls into Mina Salman pier in Bahrain.(Photo by Cmdr. Jane Campbell/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
    Little Bahrain is a pillar of the Obama administration's military framework in the region. It hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which is a critical counterbalance to Iran's efforts to expand its clout in the region.

    Officials fear that a prolonged crisis opens the door for a potential flashpoint between Iran and its Arab rivals in the Gulf.

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