The central square in Bahrain's capital city, Manama, was silent Thursday morning, just hours after a "Day of Rage" intended to echo those that toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt ended with two dead and numerous others wounded.
Hundreds of shotgun-toting police officers attacked the tens of thousands of protesters who were sleeping and otherwise relaxing in Pearl Square. They fired tear gas canisters and concussion grenades at the men, women and children who had settled in for the night, The New York Times reported. Many were trampled, beaten or suffocated by tear gas in the ensuing chaos.
A strong U.S. ally, tiny Bahrain plays host to the American Navy's Fifth Fleet, with some 2,300 military personnel living on the base in Manama. It was not clear how many U.S. nationals were in the country at the time of the disturbances. However, a U.S. spokeswoman said no special security precautions were being taken. "The U.S. is not being targeted at all in any of these protests," Jennifer Stride told reporters on Wednesday.
The crowds had first poured into the square, a symbol of the country's ancient pearl-diving history, on Monday. Police stopped them with tear gas and bullets. One protester, a young man, was killed. The next day a similar scenario took place, prompting the United States to pressure King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to withdraw the government forces.
On Wednesday, tens of thousands more set up tents and listened to speeches from activists who demanded that King Khalifa establish a constitutional democracy. "The people want the fall of the regime," the crowds chanted.
Although the crowds were so vast they tied up roads surrounding the square for miles, by 11:00 p.m. things were quiet, with family groups gathered quietly in their tents and on blankets.
At 2:45 a.m. Thursday, plainclothes government forces moved in along with police officers wearing white crash helmets.
The Khalifa family, Sunni Muslims, has ruled the kingdom, home to 600,000, for more than 200 years. However, the majority of the population is comprised of Shi'ite Muslims. Leaders of the largest Shi'ite party in the government, Al Wefaq, walked out of Parliament and said they would not return until the king acquiesed to their demand for an elected government under a constitutional democracy.
The king appointed a Jewish woman to the country's 40-member lower chamber of parliament in November, as well as a Christian woman. The new Jewish member of the house, Nancy Khadhori, replaced a prior Jewish member, Huda Nono, who left to become Bahrain's first female ambassador to the United States. She is the first Jew to be so appointed.