MANAMA, Bahrain — 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.
Bahrain's streets were mostly empty after the 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 tiny kingdom of Bahrain is a key part of Washington's military counterbalance to Iran by hosting the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Bahrain's rulers and their Arab allies depict any sign of unrest among their Shiite populations as a move by neighboring Shiite-majority Iran to expand its clout in the region.
While part of the recent revolt in the Arab world, the underlying tensions in Bahrain are decades old and pit the majority Shiites against the Sunni elite.
After allowing several days of rallies in the capital of Manama by disaffected Shiites, the island nation's Sunni rulers unleashed riot police who stormed a protest encampment in Pearl Square before dawn, firing tear gas, beating demonstrators or blasting them with shotgun sprays of birdshot. Along with two who died in clashes with police Monday, the new killings brought the death toll this week in Bahrain to seven.
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.
In the government's first public comment on the crackdown, Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa said it was necessary because the demonstrators were "polarizing the country" and pushing it to the "brink of the sectarian abyss."
Speaking to reporters after an emergency meeting with his Gulf counterparts in Manama to discuss the unrest, he called the violence "regrettable," said the deaths would be investigated and added that authorities chose to clear the square by force at 3 a.m. — when the fewest number of people would be in the square — "to minimize any possibility of casualties."
Many of the protesters were sleeping and said they received little warning of the assault.
In the wake of the bloodshed, angry demonstrators who milled around one hospital for treatment or to transport wounded friends and relatives chanted: "The regime must go!"
They stomped on and burned pictures of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa outside the emergency ward at Salmaniya Medical Complex, the main hospital where most of the casualties were taken.
"We are even angrier now," shouted Makki Abu Taki, after viewing the birdshot-riddled body of his son in the hospital morgue. "They think they can clamp down on us, but they have made us angrier. We will take to the streets in larger numbers and honor our martyrs. The time for Al Khalifa has ended."
The Obama administration expressed alarm over the violent crackdown. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the foreign minister to register Washington's "deep concern" and urge restraint. Similar criticism came from Britain and the European Union, and Human Rights Watch urged Bahraini authorities to order security forces to stop attacks on peaceful protesters.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert 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.
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