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U.S. concerned by violence in Bahrain protests

The United States said Tuesday it was "very concerned" by recent violence in protests in Bahrain and urged all sides to exercise restraint.
Image: A funeral procession for Ali Abdulhadi Mushaima, 21, moves slowly through the streets of Jidhafs, Bahrain
A funeral procession for Ali Abdulhadi Mushaima, 21, moves slowly through the streets of Jidhafs, Bahrain, Tuesday. An estimated 10,000 people participated in the funeral march for Mushaima, who was killed in clashes Monday in nationwide anti-government protests.Hasan Jamali / AP
/ Source: news services

The United States said Tuesday it was "very concerned" by recent violence in protests in Bahrain and urged all sides to exercise restraint.

"The United States is very concerned by recent violence surrounding protests in Bahrain," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a statement. "We also call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence."

The spokesman said Washington had received confirmation that two protesters in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, had been killed and urged Bahrain to quickly follow up on its pledge to investigate.

"The United States welcomes the government of Bahrain's statements that it will investigate these deaths, and that it will take legal action against any unjustified use of force by Bahraini security forces," Crowley said.

The discontent that has spilled into the streets of Bahrain's capital, Manama, this week features no anti-American sentiment, but the U.S. has a lot at stake in preserving its dominant naval presence in the Gulf.

The implications for U.S. foreign policy and national security from the pro-democracy movements that have arisen in the Arab world — highlighted by Egypt's stunning revolution last week — is likely to be a topic Wednesday when Defense Secretary Robert Gates testifies before the House Armed Services Committee.

Bahrain became a more prominent partner for the Pentagon after the 1991 Gulf War with Iraq; since then it has granted U.S. forces increased access, plus permission to store wartime supplies for future crises.

Shiite protesters prepared to camp out in Bahrain's capital on Tuesday evening after a day of protests in which a man was shot dead in clashes with police at a funeral for a demonstrator shot the day before.

Protesters, inspired by popular revolts that toppled rulers in Tunisia and Egypt, said their main demand was the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has governed the Gulf Arab state since its independence in 1971.

Security forces — apparently under orders to hold back — watched from the sidelines as protesters chanted slogans mocking the nation's ruling sheiks and called for sweeping political reforms and an end to monarchy's grip on key decisions and government posts.

In a clear sign of concern over the widening crisis, Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa made a rare national TV address, offering condolences for the deaths, pledging an investigation into the killings and promising to push ahead with reforms, which include loosening state controls on the media and Internet.

"We extend our condolences to the parents of the dear sons who died yesterday and today. We pray that they are inspired by the Almighty's patience, solace and tranquility," said the king, who had previously called for an emergency Arab summit to discuss the growing unrest.

Many in Bahrain boiled down their discontent to a cry for economic justice as well — saying the Sunni rulers control the privileges and opportunities and the Shiite majority struggles with what's left over and are effectively blackballed from important state jobs.

"I demand what every Bahraini should have: a job and a house," said student Iftikhar Ali, 27, who joined the crowds in the seaside Pearl Square. "I believe in change."

Protesters quickly renamed it "Nation's Square" and erected banners such as "Peaceful" that were prominent in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Many waved Bahraini flags and chanted: "No Sunnis, no Shiites. We are all Bahrainis."

Others set up tents and distributed tea and kabobs for those planning to spend the night under one of the city's landmarks: a nearly 300-foot (90-meter) monument cradling a giant white pearl-shaped ball that symbolizes the country's heritage as a pearl diving center.

Someone used stones to spell out the message in Arabic: "The real criminals are the royal family."

Other demands — listed on a poster erected in the square — included the release of all political prisoners, more jobs and housing, an elected Cabinet and the replacement of longtime prime minister, Sheik Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa.

The nation's majority Shiites — about 70 percent of the population of some 500,000— have long complained of discrimination and being blackballed from important state jobs.

Many in the square waved Bahraini flags and chanted: "No Sunnis, no Shiites. We are all Bahrainis." It also appeared they were planning for the long haul. Some groups carried in tents and sought generators to set up under a nearly 300-foot (90-meter) monument cradling a giant white pearl-shaped ball that symbolizes the country's heritage as a pearl diving center.

Reaction in Washington
President Barack Obama on Tuesday slammed Iran for its harsh treatment of anti-government protesters and called on governments throughout the Middle East to avoid crackdowns on pro-democracy supporters.

"The world is changing," Obama said in a message he said was for "friend and foe alike" but which seemed directed to remaining autocratic leaders across the region. "You have a young, vibrant generation within the Middle East that is looking for greater opportunity, and that if you are governing these countries, you've got to get out ahead of change, you can't be behind the curve."

Obama was asked at a White House news conference about the mood of change sweeping the Middle East in sympathy with the opposition victory in Egypt.

"I find it ironic that you've got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt, when in fact they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully in Iran," he said.

In other Middle East developments:

Tunisia: Interior Ministry extended on Tuesday a state of emergency but lifted a night-time curfew which was declared at the height of protests that toppled the president last month.

"The state of emergency will continue until further notice. The ministry also announced that the curfew ... has been lifted across the whole country," the official TAP news agency quoted an Interior Ministry statement as saying.

The curfew and state of emergency were declared on Jan. 14, a few hours before a wave of popular protests forced President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia.

The caretaker government that took over after Ben Ali's overthrow kept the emergency measures in force to help it contain an outbreak of violence and lawlessness in the weeks that followed.

Since then, stability has been gradually returning, though there are still flare-ups of violence and protests.

There had been mounting pressure on the government to lift the curfew from the tourist industry — one of the Mediterranean country's biggest sources of revenue — which said the restriction was scaring off visitors.

Egypt: The military said on Tuesday it hoped to hand over to an elected government in six months, but the Muslim Brotherhood said ending emergency law and freeing political prisoners would build a "bridge of confidence."

The Muslim Brotherhood said Tuesday it will form a political party once democracy is established but promised not to field a candidate for president, trying to allay fears among Egyptians and abroad that it seeks power. Still, the fundamentalist movement is poised to be a significant player in the new order.

The Armed Forces Supreme Council included a former Brotherhood lawmaker in an eight-member panel tasked Tuesday with amending the constitution enough to allow democratic elections later this year.

The panel is comprised of legal experts of various ideologies, including secular liberal scholars and three judges from the current Supreme Constitutional Court, one of them a Christian. The changes aim to open the field for political parties to form, loosen restrictions on who can run for president and write in guarantees to prevent the rampant election rigging that ensured Mubarak's ruling party a lock on power.

The military's remarks on the transition, which were carried on the state agency, were the clearest sign since Mubarak quit on Friday that the generals were committed to a swift time frame for fulfilling their promises of elections and democracy.

But the Islamist Brotherhood, echoing the demands of pro-democracy activists and reformists, said it wanted the military to carry out further steps immediately.

"We, together with the entire nation ... are in need of a bridge of confidence between the army and the people," Essam al- Erian, a senior Brotherhood member, told Reuters, referring to the lifting of emergency law and releasing political prisoners.

Some secular leaders fret that racing into presidential and parliamentary elections in a nation where Mubarak had suppressed most opposition activity for 30 years may hand an edge to the Brotherhood, probably the only well-organized political group.

Yemen: Hundreds of anti-government demonstrators and government loyalists fought with rocks and batons in the Yemeni capital on Tuesday in political unrest fueled by Egypt's uprising.

About 1,000 protesters, marching down a street leading to the presidential palace, were blocked by riot police. As they dispersed into side streets, they were confronted by hundreds of government backers and both sides hurled rocks at each other. Four protesters, including one member of parliament, were wounded, two with head injuries.

Police soon stamped out the clashes.

"The people want the fall of the regime! This corrupt government should leave the country!" some of the protesters shouted, demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a U.S. ally against al Qaida's Yemen-based wing.

Protesters have hardened their calls for Saleh, who has ruled the Arabian Peninsula state for more than three decades, to resign after initially calling also for reform. Many were holding posters with one word: "Leave."

The threat of turmoil in Yemen, already on the verge of collapsing into a failed state, has pushed Saleh to offer some concessions, including a promise to step down in 2013 and an invitation to the opposition for reconciliation talks. The opposition has agreed to negotiate with Saleh.

But analysts said the protests could be reaching a turning point, although they doubt whether Yemen would see a quick, Egypt-style revolt. Any change would be slower and could be accompanied by more bloodshed, they said.

"Yemen, and particularly President Saleh, is entering a very critical several weeks," said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen analyst at Princeton University.

Iran: Hardline lawmakers on Tuesday called for the country's opposition leaders to face trial and be put to death, a day after clashes between opposition protesters and security forces left one person dead and dozens injured.

Tens of thousands of people turned out for the opposition rally Monday in solidarity with Egypt's popular revolt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak after nearly 30 years in power. The demonstration was the first major show of strength from Iran's beleaguered opposition in more than a year.

At an open session of parliament Tuesday, pro-government legislators demanded opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mahdi Karroubi and former reformist President Mohammad Khatami face be held responsible for the protests.

Pumping their fists in the air, the lawmakers chanted "death to Mousavi, Karroubi and Khatami."

"We believe the people have lost their patience and demand capital punishment" for the opposition leaders, 221 lawmakers said in a statement.

Hardliners have long sought to put senior opposition figures on trial, but the calls for the death penalty signaled an escalation in their demands.

Iran has already tried scores of opposition figures and activists on charges of fomenting the mass protests following the country's disputed 2009 presidential elections that saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad win a second term. More than 80 of people were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to 15 years.

The opposition says scores were killed in the massive crackdown on those protests, while the government says only around 30 people died.

Following Monday's opposition demonstrations, the first since December 2009, authorities vowed to move quickly to stifle the opposition before its gains momentum.

"The judiciary will quickly and resolutely deal with major elements and those who violated public order and peace," the spokesman for Iran's judiciary and state prosecutor, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi, told the official IRNA news agency.

Morocco: Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri said Algeria and the Polisario Front, which wants independence for Western Sahara, may use political upheavals sweeping some countries in the Arab world to stir unrest in the disputed desert region.

Fihri also urged Algeria, Morocco's neighbor and the Polisario Front's biggest supporter, to turn the page on past disputes and focus on greater economic cooperation.

Morocco annexed the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony in 1975, sparking an armed conflict with the Polisario.

A U.N.-brokered ceasefire was reached in 1991 on the promise that a referendum would be held to decide the fate of the territory, but differences between the two sides about who is eligible to vote sabotaged it.

Morocco has offered limited autonomy to Western Sahara, a thinly populated region that has rich fishing waters and phosphate deposits, and may also have oil and gas reserves.