Where is Bahrain's unrest headed?

Bahrain, a tiny island nation flanked by Saudi Arabia and Iran, showed its willingness today to use force to stymie growing calls for reform. At least three protesters were reported dead in an overnight raid.

Tony Mitchell, HO/AP Photo
In this image from video, riot police firing tear gas and wielding clubs storm Pearl Roundabout occupied by anti-government protesters before dawn Thursday, Feb. 17, driving out demonstrators and destroying a makeshift encampment that had become the hub for demands to bring sweeping political changes to the kingdom.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

At least three people are reported dead and dozens more seriously injured in Bahrain after riot police violently dispersed protesters in the capital – escalating the confrontation and underscoring the government's willingness to use force to stymie the growing calls for political reform.

The raid – in which police used tear gas, batons, and bird-shot – took place overnight as security forces targeted a large crowd of demonstrators who had gathered at a protest camp at the landmark Pearl Roundabout in the capital, Manama.

The police action was clearly aimed at preventing a mass demonstration planned for Saturday to call for constitutional reform and a more representative parliament in a country where political power is concentrated in the hands of the ruling Al-Khalifah family.

But it's unclear whether the harsh action – which included dozens of Army trucks and armored vehicles – will tamp down protests that have been buoyed by the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, or only serve to energize protesters, further destabilizing the Persian Gulf kingdom.

How the raid was carried out

Armored cars are now patrolling the streets of the capital, and all further protests have been banned by the authorities. But sporadic clashes have occurred in different parts of the city.

A statement from the Ministry of Interior claimed that the authorities had attempted to negotiate a peaceful end to the demonstration.

"Security forces evacuated the area of Pearl Roundabout from protesters, after trying all opportunities for dialogue with them, in which some positively responded and left quietly," the statement read.

However, human rights activists were quick to dismiss these reports, and Al Jazeera reported that the protesters were asleep when the police raid began and that medical staff attending the wounded were among those beaten by police.

The violence comes on the fourth consecutive day of protests since demonstrators staged a ‘Day of Rage’ on Feb. 14, with two protesters killed earlier in the week. In the aftermath of these fatalities, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Issa issued an apology and promised an investigation into excessive police violence.

But last night's events appear to make a mockery of the monarch's statement of regret.

Sunnis and Shiites could unite against monarchy

Bahrain is a key strategic ally of the US and home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, which has seen active service in a range of regional conflicts from Iraq to Afghanistan. However, the country has long been a scene of political and sectarian tensions.

Power is concentrated in the hands of the Al Khalifa ruling family who belong to the Sunni sect of Islam. But Shiites account for a majority of the population, and historically they have not enjoyed the same economic opportunities as Sunnis.

Unlike the shock that greeted the uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Bahrain has long been the scene of political discontent. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, the Bahraini government repeatedly jailed members of Shiite political groups calling for greater political representation.

Such actions were justified in terms of national security threats amid lingering territorial claims by Iran over Bahrain. Attempts at political reform in 2002 that changed the country from an emirate to a constitutional monarchy have so far failed to yield meaningful change.

However, if the current maelstrom of political reform rushing through the region unites both the Shiite underclass with middle-class Sunnis tired of the status quo, the Al Khalifah dynasty may be forced to cede more power to the people, or use greater force to suppress dissent.

Seven opposition groups have come together to organize protests for Saturday, hoping to draw as many as 100,000 but expecting at least half that, the Wall Street Journal reported.

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