MANAMA, Bahrain — Government forces opened fire on hundreds of mourners marching toward Pearl Square Friday, sending people running away in panic amid the boom of concussion grenades. But even as the people fled, at least one helicopter was spraying fire on them and a witness reported seeing mourners crumpling to the ground. A Western official quoted the witness saying that the shooters were from the military, not the police, which might indicate a hardening of the government’s stance against those trying to stage a popular revolt.
It was not immediately clear if all the forces were using live ammunition or rubber bullets to fire at the crowd, mostly young men who had been part of a funeral procession for protesters killed in an earlier crackdown by police.
Minutes later, forces in a helicopter that had been shooting at the crowds, stopped to fire at a Western reporter and videographer who were shooting footage on the latest violence.
At least seven people had died in clampdowns before Friday’s violence and a Western official said at least one had died Friday. There were reports of at least 50 injured.
The chaos has left the Obama administration in the uncomfortable position of dealing with a strategic Arab ally locked in a showdown with its people.
The protests here started Monday, inspired by the overthrow of autocratic governments in Egypt and Tunisia. The Bahraini government initially cracked down hard, then backed off after at least two deaths and complaints from the United States. But since Thursday morning, security forces have shown little patience with the protesters, first firing on people camped out in Pearl Square early Thursday morning, killing at least five, and then shooting today at those who gathered to mark earlier deaths.
The violence appeared to be transforming the demands of the protesters who early on were calling for a switch from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one. But by Thursday, masses of protesters were chanting slogans like “death to Khalifa,” referring to King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, while the opposition withdrew from the Parliament and demanded that the government step down.
The protests here, while trying to mimic those in Egypt and Tunisia, add a dangerous new element: religious divisions. The king and the ruling elite of Bahrain are Sunni, while the majority of the population are Shiites, who have been leading the demonstrations and demanding not only more freedom but equality.
The king is distrustful enough of his Shiite subjects that many of his soldiers and police are foreigners hired by the government.
On Friday, in the village of Sitra, south of Manama, a crowd of thousands accompanied the coffins of Ali Mansour Ahmed Khudair, 53, and Mahmoud Makki Abutaki, 22, both killed by shotgun fire on Thursday.
The coffins were carried on the roofs of two cars as a man with a loudspeaker led the crowd in its chants from the bed of a pickup truck, alternating between calls to the faithful — “There is no God but God” — with political messages such as “We need constitutional reform for freedom.”
In the sun-scorched, sandy cemetery with its crumbling white headstones, the bodies were laid to rest on their sides so that they faced the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. “Have you seen what they have done to us,” said Aayat Mandeel, 29, a computer technician. “Killing people for what? To keep their positions?”
After the burials, the crowds moved off to a major mosque for noon prayers on the Muslim holy day, an occasion that has provided a focus for protests elsewhere in the region. But it was not clear whether religious leaders would urge them to continue their demonstrations.
For the Obama administration, the violence in this tiny Persian Gulf State was the Egypt scenario in miniature, 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.
Before Friday’s violence, 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 Thursday 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, and because of the sectarian nature of the flare-up