Image: Bahraini protesters pray and chant slogans as another protester, right, places a Bahraini flag at the Pearl roundabout
Hassan Ammar  /  AP
Bahraini protesters pray and chant slogans as another protester places a Bahraini flag at the Pearl roundabout soon after the military pulled out in Manama, Bahrain, Saturday. Riot police later beat demonstrators and fired tear gas, before they too withdrew.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 2/19/2011 3:04:04 PM ET 2011-02-19T20:04:04

Anti-government protesters in Bahrain swarmed back into a symbolic square on Saturday, putting riot police to flight in a striking victory for their cause and confidently setting up camp for a protracted stay.

Crowds had approached Pearl Square in Manama from different directions, creating a standoff with riot police who had moved in earlier to replace troops withdrawn on royal orders.

Suddenly police raced to their buses, which drove away mounting kerbs in their haste to escape.

Emboldened protesters, cheering and waving national flags, ran to the center of the traffic circle, retaking it even before all police had left.

"We are victorious!" they chanted as they marched back into the square.

The crowd waved fleeing policemen through.

"We don't fear death anymore, let the army come and kill us to show the world what kind of savages they are," said Umm Mohammed, a teacher wearing a black abaya cloak.

On orders from the crown prince, troops and armoured vehicles earlier withdrew from the square, which they had taken over on Thursday after riot police staged a night-time attack on a sit-in by protesters, killing four people and wounding 231.

The crowds in Pearl Square soon swelled into the tens of thousands, celebrating a triumph for the mostly Shiite protesters who took to the streets on Monday, inspired by popular revolts that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.

The authorities had been determined to prevent protesters from turning Pearl Square into a base like Cairo's Tahrir Square, the heart of a revolt that ousted Egypt's Hosni Mubarak.

'We liberated a small part of Bahrain today'
Tents, removed two days ago by the army, were set up again along with makeshift medical stations to treat any wounded.

"We liberated a small part of Bahrain today. We will liberate all of Bahrain," a man in the square said.

Bahrain's 70 percent Shiite majority long has felt discriminated against in the Gulf Arab island that is ruled by a Sunni Muslim dynasty and is a close U.S. and Saudi ally.

Shiites feel cut out of decision-making and complain of unfair treatment in access to state jobs and housing.

Sixty to 80 people were taken to Salmaniya hospital after being affected by teargas or hit by rubber bullets, a doctor said. He said the hospital was full and did not have enough oxygen to deal with the rush of casualties.

More than 60 people were in the hospital with wounds sustained on Friday when security forces fired on protesters as they headed to Pearl Square, then still in military hands.

Protesters on Friday described a chaotic scene of tear gas clouds, bullets coming from many directions and people slipping in pools of blood as they sought cover. Some claimed the gunfire came from either helicopters or sniper nests.

Video: NYT's Kristof: 'Complete chaos' in Bahrain (on this page)

"Police attacking protesters here at hospital in Bahrain. Tear gas inside. Panic," tweeted New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof. Another message on his Twitter account read: "Patients pouring into ER, along w tear gas. Chaos. Tr gas grenades thudding in bckground."

"People started running in all directions and bullets were flying," said Ali al-Haji, a 27-year-old bank clerk. "I saw people getting shot in the legs, chest, and one man was bleeding from his head."

"My eyes were full of tear gas, there was shooting and there was a lot of panic," said Mohammed Abdullah, a 37-year-old businessman taking part in the protest.

Bing / msnbc.com

Mohammed, a 28-year-old banker who lives in Bahrain’s capital and asked that his last name not be printed out of fear for his safety, said the medical complex by Pearl Square was overwhelmed.

“There is blood everywhere,” he said. “Most of the shots are to the chest and the head. They were shot to kill; they were not shot to break down their gathering.”

The gunfire started as protesters joined funeral mourners in Pearl Square, carrying flowers to honor the dead.

“As soon as they approached, there was gunfire,” he told msnbc.com from his home in Manama, too afraid to go outside during the clashes. “My friend is just two blocks away, and he saw people falling. I have another friend who told me it’s explosive chaos.”

Bahrain's crown prince called for a national day of mourning "for the sons we have lost," the state news agency reported.

Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, deputy supreme armed forces commander, called for calm, asking citizens to unite and cooperate with all political forces in the country.

"I stress, once more, that our duty is to preserve security and stability, to ensure that there is no discord and that the situation does not worsen," he said in a statement.

About the causes of the unrest, the crown prince, seen as a reformist, told Al Arabiya television: "Maybe, in summary, there is a feeling that some basic demands have not been met. We want to correct this situation and prevent its repetition."

After troops had been ordered off the streets, police were to keep order, but people power proved too strong in Pearl Square.

Some people kissed the ground in joy or started praying.

"We took this square in a peaceful manner. The Khalifa henchmen, they killed my friends here," a protester said.

Hundreds of women in long black robes screamed "Down, down Khalifa" repeatedly outside Salmaniya hospital on Saturday.

President Barack Obama spoke to the king on Friday, condemning the violence and urging the government to show restraint and respect the rights of its people.

The crown prince's orders to withdraw the military from the streets were issued a few hours later.

"That's a very positive step," Jasim Hussain, a member of the main Shiite Wefaq bloc that quit parliament on Thursday, told Reuters. "They're trying to ease the tensions. I don't know whether it will be sufficient."

Video: Bahrain protest ends in bloodshed (on this page)

Wefaq earlier had rejected the king's dialogue offer, saying troops must be withdrawn first, among other conditions.

Another Wefaq lawmaker said the troop pullout was not enough by itself. "There's no difference if people are killed by the military or by the security forces," said Ibrahim Mattar.

"We hope to hear a clear message from the government that it will stop killing people who are protesting peacefully."

Mattar said the king must accept the concept of constitutional monarchy, as well as withdrawing the military.

"Then we can go for a temporary government of new faces that would not include the current interior or defense ministers."

He reiterated an opposition demand for the king to fire his uncle, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, prime minister since Bahrain gained its independence in 1971.

Bahrain, a minor oil producer, has long been a military ally of the West. A naval base near Manama that hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet helps the United States to project power across the Middle East and Central Asia, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

A fleet spokesman said there was no significant impact on operations and Jennifer Stride, spokeswoman for the U.S. naval base, said no evacuation of families was planned.

The United States is caught between the desire for stability in an ally seen as a bulwark against Iran and the need to uphold the people's right to express their grievances.

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

Video: Bahrain opts for dialogue, Libya for violence

  1. Closed captioning of: Bahrain opts for dialogue, Libya for violence

    >> we turn over seas now with 15 people reported killed in lynn th libya . and something far different today and a victory for the people. nbc's richard engel is there again for us tonight.

    >> reporter: they have been waiting more than a week to achieve. a victory by arriving in the center of the quick. it has been the center of the protest movement since it began. thousands were gathered peacefully here last week. a demonstration meant to replicate the revolution. before dawn on thursday, police and soldiers were sent on for a brutal crack down. four protesters were killed. the next day, the demonstrators returned and they were attacked. even as some opened their shirts exposing their chests to bullets. but the police and soldiers did fire, at least 50 people were injured sparking international condemnation and a call from president obama to the royal family . today the government posture was different. in the morning, the army pulled out of the city. protesters gathered at the edge of the square in a standoff with police. but this afternoon, the police also pulled back. the crowds suddenly rushed forward. men and women carrying flowers. it is rare for women to be out protesting here. now they are saying this is peaceful. thousands reached the square. their cries and shouts were emoti emotional. but the message was of peace. some men dropped to the ground in tears. their arrival a highly symbolic victory. and now the protesters tell us they are ready to negotiate.

    >> i don't know what is wrong with us. everywhere in the world why not piece with us?

    >> reporter: the crowned prince who ordered the security forces to withdraw said the time has come for dialogue. libya continues to take a hard line . human rights groups say dozens have been killed in the last three days. today 16 died when security forces fired on crowds of mourners. there are reports of defectses in the army and that libya has brought in mercinaries. these are the first images of the strong hold where the government is offering $2,000 payments to keep citizens loyal. but libya has banned western journalists. the only images have come on line. today even those were rare as the state cut the internet for hours. today opted for dialogue. libya for violence.

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.

Photos: March

loading photos...
  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
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  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

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,