SITRA: Angry Bahraini Shias began Friday burying the dead of a violent police raid on anti-regime protesters as the army enforced a tight clamp across the capital of the Sunni-ruled Gulf monarchy.
Thousands of mourners in the village of Sitra, east of Manama, chanted slogans calling for the ouster of the regime of the al-Khalifa dynasty, as well as songs urging unity between the Shia majority and Sunni compatriots.
They chanted "people want to overthrow the regime" — the slogan used by anti-regime protesters across the Arab world inspired by the uprisings of Tunisia and Egypt which brought down the former two strongmen of the Western-backed countries.
They also wrapped the bodies of Ali Khodeir, 53, and Mahmoud Mekki, 23, with Bahraini flags. A third victim, Issa Abdulhasan, 60, was buried in the village of Karzakan, while the fourth, Ali Mumen, 22, was to be buried in the afternoon in Sitra.
Police were not visible at the funerals but a helicopter hovered over Sitra, while army tanks and troops kept tight control on the streets of Manama ahead of the weekly Muslim Friday prayers.
Concerned that events in Bahrain could destabilize the entire region, Gulf foreign ministers met in Manama on Thursday and expressed their "total support for Bahrain in the areas of politics, economy, security and defence."
In Washington, US President Barack Obama expressed opposition to the use of force, while Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said those who did use it should be held accountable.
Witnesses said riot police stormed through Pearl Square, the epicenter of pro-democracy protests that have shaken the Gulf island state, in the early hours of Thursday firing hollow-point bullets, rubber bullets and tear gas, sending hundreds of protesters fleeing.
The raid stunned the opposition after the interior ministry had apologized for the killing of two demonstrators on Monday and Tuesday, and said it arrested policemen pending an investigation ordered by king Hamad who expressed his deep sorrow in a televised speech on Tuesday.
Officials put the death toll of Thursday’s raid of Pearl Square at three, but the Shia opposition said four were killed in the attack. Nearly 200 people were wounded.
"No Sunnis. No Shias, only national unity," chanted the mourners whose community complains of discrimination and faces suspicion over its loyalty to Bahrain, amid Gulf fears of Iranian attempts to use Shias to destabilize the staunch US-allied Sunni monarchies.
They also chanted slogans calling for the government to be held responsible for the killings, witnesses said.
The Shia-led opposition raised its stakes following the protest, with Sheikh Ali Salman, the head of the Islamic National Accord Association which has the largest single parliamentary bloc, demanding a "real constitutional monarchy."
The opposition wants the ruling family to give up its grip over government posts. Salman on Thursday demanded the resignation of the widely despised Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman, the uncle of king Hamad who has been in office since 1971.
But the prospect of a prolonged crisis raises fears of a potential flashpoint between Iran and its Arab rivals in the Gulf, if the Islamic republic attempts to capitalize on the Shia-led protest.
Shia hardliners in Iran have often expressed kinship and support for Bahrain’s Shias, whose leadership on the other hand vies to stress their allegiance to Bahrain.
In the 1990s, the Arab state which faces Iran across the Gulf waterway, was plagued by a wave of Shia-led unrest that has abated since the 2001 reforms restored parliament.
On Thursday, Tehran called on Bahrain to exercise retraint and heed the demands of its people.
Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmed al-Thani said on Thursday that the police intervention was justified to prevent "a sectarian conflict and an economic crisis."
Meanwhile, the United States, which uses Bahrain as home to its Fifth Fleet urged Bahrain to show restraint over protests.
State Secretary Hillary Clinton spoke to Sheikh Khaled and expressed "deep concern about recent events and urged restraint moving forward," a state department official told AFP.