After a government crackdown in Pearl Square in Manama, Bahrain, protesters… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Manama, Bahrain — Beyond the hospital grounds, heavily armed police trying to secure this tiny kingdom against the contagion of unrest spreading across the Middle East manned checkpoints and grimly gripped their weapons. Within, perplexed and angry protesters insisted that they wouldn't be cowed.
The night before, a bloody assault against sleeping demonstrators killed at least four people.
But the front line shifted across town Thursday to the Salmaniya Medical Complex, where the dead were laid out. Doctors were treating those who had been tear-gassed, clubbed or wounded by gunfire, and an angry crowd was chanting slogans against the royal family.
Mourners said they were afraid to hold traditional funeral marches because the government warned people to stay off the streets and said the army would do whatever necessary to maintain stability. But inside the compound, hundreds pumped their fists and shouted: "Down with the Khalifa family!" and "You cannot keep us down!"
Protests across the Middle East have focused on demands for economic reforms and more political freedom, but in Bahrain they have a sectarian tinge. The Shiite Muslim majority is ruled by a Sunni Muslim royal family.
Foreign Minister Khalid ibn Ahmed Khalifa said demonstrators were "polarizing the country" and pushing it to the "brink of the sectarian abyss."
Adel Maawdah, deputy chairman of the parliament's foreign affairs, defense and national security committee, defended the crackdown.
"Most of the people there didn't want clashes, and the police as well, but unfortunately, we hear there were others urging them [the crowd] to be aggressive with the police. Tens can do it," said Maawdah.
At the hospital Thursday, mourners and protesters were demanding an explanation for the government's violent reaction. Bahrain is their country too, they said. They had been peaceful, and the state had unleashed its wrath on them.
In the autopsy room, the bodies of those killed in the overnight assault on Pearl Square were laid out.
Two of the dead were men were in their 50s, one of them apparently shot at close range, his scalp blown open. Next to them was the body of Mahmoud Abtaki, 22. His brother Ahmed held his hand.
"Mahmoud was a student in mechanical engineering, and he had gone to the square because he didn't have work," Ahmed said. His voice trembled.
"He didn't carry anything, only a Bahraini flag," Ahmed said, and then he leaned his face to his brother's and whispered to him.
Doctors later said that a fourth person had also died of injuries suffered in the crackdown.
Dr. Sediq Ekri, who had been treating patients in the square the night before, was a patient himself Thursday. From his hospital bed, in periodic gasps through his oxygen mask, he recalled how he was cuffed and kicked repeatedly by police. Pulled onto a bus, he was kicked and beaten once more, he said.
"They told me that 'if you fill the bus with your blood, we'll hit you again,' " he recalled.
The Obama administration urged restraint in the Persian Gulf nation of 800,000, which is home to the Navy's 5th Fleet. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the foreign minister to express "deep concern about recent events," a State Department official said.
The protesters in Bahrain have largely appeared leaderless. They have included bloggers and longtime critics of the ruling family. Much of the unrest is based on long-held feelings by impoverished Shiites that the royal family discriminates against them and abuses its power.
The protesters, who include a small number of Sunnis, insist that their demands transcend sectarian concerns. Still, demonstrators said they didn't expect the ferocity of the overnight assault on the square. After two protesters were killed early in the demonstrations, the king apologized.
Demonstrators insisted Thursday on their dignity and said the protests were a means to gain greater freedom.
"Just like Martin Luther King, we have a dream," one of them said.
In anger, the main Shiite opposition party said its 18 members would leave the 40-member parliament. Instead of holding a mass demonstration Friday, protest leaders said they would try to go ahead with the funerals they could not hold Thursday, despite the violence exhibited by authorities.
"I believed because I was a doctor they would have mercy," Ekri said. "But there was no mercy."