MANAMA, Bahrain — A brutal government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters here on Thursday not only killed at least five people but, once again, placed the Obama administration in the uncomfortable position of dealing with a strategic Arab ally locked in a showdown with its people.
As the army patrolled with tanks and heavily armed soldiers, the once-peaceful protesters were transformed into a mob of angry mourners chanting slogans like “death to Khalifa,” the king, while the opposition withdrew from the Parliament and demanded that the government step down. At the main hospital following the violence, thousands gathered screaming, crying and collapsing in grief.
For the Obama administration, it was the Egypt scenario in miniature in this tiny Persian Gulf state, a struggle to avert broader instability and protect its interests — Bahrain is the base of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet — while voicing support for the democratic aspiration of the protesters.
The United States said it strongly opposed the use of violence. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Bahrain’s foreign minister on Thursday morning to convey “our deep concern about the actions of the security forces,” she said. President Obama did not publicly address the crackdown, but his press secretary, Jay Carney, said that the White House was urging Bahrain to use restraint in responding to “peaceful protests.”
In some ways, the administration’s calculations are even more complicated here, given Bahrain’s proximity to Saudi Arabia, another Sunni kingdom of vital importance to Washington. Unlike in Egypt, where the struggle was between democracy and dictatorship, Bahrain is suffering a flare-up in old divisions between its ruling Sunni Muslim minority and restive Shiites, who constitute 70 percent of the local population of 500,000.
This has broader regional implications, experts and officials said, since Saudi Arabia has a significant Shiite minority in its eastern, oil-producing districts and the Shiite government in Iran would like to extend its influence over this nearby island kingdom. Shiite political figures in Bahrain deny that their goal is to institute an Islamic theocracy like that in Tehran.
For those who were in the traffic circle known as Pearl Square when the police opened fire without warning on thousands who were sleeping there, it was a day of shock and disbelief. Many of the hundreds taken to the hospital were wounded by shotgun blasts, doctors said, their bodies speckled with pellets or bruised by rubber bullets or police clubs.
In the morning, there were three bodies already stretched out on metal tables in the morgue at Salmaniya Medical Complex: Ali Mansour Ahmed Khudair, 53, dead, with 91 pellets pulled from his chest and side; Isa Abd Hassan, 55, dead, his head split in half; Mahmoud Makki Abutaki, 22, dead, 200 pellets of birdshot pulled from his chest and arms.
Doctors said that at least two others had died and that several patients were in critical condition with serious wounds. Muhammad al-Maskati, of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, said he had received at least 20 calls from frantic parents searching for young children.
A surgeon, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, said that for hours on Thursday the Health Ministry prevented ambulances even from going to the scene to aid victims. The doctor said that in the early morning, when the assault was still under way, police officers beat a paramedic and a doctor and refused to allow medical staff to attend to the wounded. News agencies in Bahrain reported that the health minister, Faisal al-Hamar, resigned after doctors staged a demonstration to protest his order barring ambulances from going to the square.
In the bloodstained morgue, Ahmed Abutaki, 29, held his younger brother’s cold hand, tearfully recalling the last time they spoke Wednesday night. “He said, ‘This is my chance, to have a say, so that maybe our country will do something for us,’ ” he recalled of his brother’s decision to camp out in the circle. “My country did do something; it killed him.”
There was collective anxiety as Friday approached and people waited to see whether the opposition would challenge the government’s edict to stay off the streets — and if it did, whether the government would follow through on its threat to use “every strict measure and deterrent necessary to preserve security and general order.” Both sides said they would not back down.
“You will find members of Al Wefaq willing to be killed, as our people have been killed,” said Khalil Ebrahim al-Marzooq, one of 18 opposition party members to announce Thursday that they had resigned their seats. “We will stand behind the people until the complete fulfillment of our demands.”
Arab leaders have been badly shaken in recent days, with entrenched leaders in Egypt and Tunisia ousted by popular uprisings and with demonstrations flaring around the region. And now as the public’s sense of empowerment has spread, the call to change has reached into this kingdom. That has raised anxiety in Saudi Arabia, which is connected to Bahrain by a bridge, and Kuwait, as well, and officials from the Gulf Cooperation Council met here to discuss how to handle the crisis.
After the meeting, the council issued a statement supporting Bahrain’s handling of the protests. It also suggested that outsiders might have fomented them, in a clear effort to suggest Iranian interference.
“The council stressed that it will not allow any external interference in the kingdom’s affairs,” said the statement, carried on Bahrain’s state news agency, “emphasizing that breaching security is a violation of the stability of all the council’s member countries.”
“The Saudis are worried about any Shia surge,” said Christopher R. Hill, who retired last year as United States ambassador to Iraq, where he navigated tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. “To see the Shia challenging the royal family will be of great concern to them.”
Still, Mr. Hill said there was little evidence that Arab Shiites in Bahrain would trade their king for Iranian rulers.
Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, and his family have long been American allies in efforts to fight terrorism and push back the regional influence of Iran. In diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks, he urged American officials to take military action to disable Iran’s nuclear program.
While Bahrain has arrested lawyers and human rights activists over the last two years, it had taken modest steps to open up the society in the eight years before that, according to Human Rights Watch. King Hamad allowed municipal and legislative elections last fall, for which he was praised by Mrs. Clinton during a visit to Bahrain in December. In the streets, however, people were not focused on geopolitics or American perceptions of progress. They were voicing demands for democracy, rule of law and social justice. When the protests started Monday, the demands were for a constitutional monarchy, but in the anger of the day the chants evolved into calls for tearing down the whole system.
“Death to Khalifa! Death to Khalifa!” chanted a frantic crowd massed in the driveway of the hospital. “Bring down the government!” cried out the thousands of men and women. The fearful and hostile mood was set the night before, when the police opened fire. Doctors, victims and witnesses gave a detailed account of how the police assault unfolded, revealing details of a calculated, coordinated attack that closed in from all sides, offering no way out.
“They had encircled us and they kept shooting tear gas and live rounds,” said Ali Muhammad Abdel Nabi, 25, as he rested in a hospital bed after having been hit by shotgun pellets on both his legs and his shoulder. “The circle got closer and closer.”
Doctors at the hospital said that 226 demonstrators had been recorded as being treated in the hospital and that many more were given aid on the run. At the scene, the doctors said protesters were handcuffed with thick plastic binders, laid on the ground and stomped on by the police.
Outside the hospital, the police stayed away, as the fuming crowd of mourners remained on the medical campus. But not far away, in the symbolic center of the city, beneath the towering statue of a pearl on a setting, soldiers patrolled, armored vehicles blocked all arteries, and a circle of barbed wire was laid around the square. Within 24 hours, the site of the first tolerated expression of public dissent had been transformed into a memorial to fear and death.
“We are a people of mourners now, we have nothing,” said Taghreed Hussein, 35, as she and her friends crowded the hospital.