Thousands protest at Bahrain Palace

AFP , Sunday 6 Mar 2011

Thousands protest at Bahraini palace and prime minister’s office, calling for regime change and to reduce powers given to government via constitution

Anti government demonstrators walk around a message written with stones and ‎addressed to King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa near Pearl Square in Manama (Reuters)

Thousands of demonstrators massed Sunday at Manama's Al-Qudaibiya Palace, where Bahrain's cabinet meets, chanting slogans against the tiny but strategic Gulf state's government.

White-helmeted police with riot shields stood behind one gate, looking on as the flag-waving demonstrators chanted "Down Hamad! Down Hamad!", in reference to Bahrain's King Hamad.

"The people want to topple the regime!" the protesters roared, shaking their fists towards the light pink palace with its onion-shaped, pearl-coloured dome.

The kingdom's cabinet usually gathers at the palace on Sunday but it was unclear if the meeting had been moved elsewhere, or if it had been cancelled due to the unrest outside.

The Gulf archipelago of Bahrain, a strategic US ally and home of the US Fifth Fleet, has been shaken by demonstrations calling for political reform since February 14.

"Hey Khalifa, get out! Get out!" demonstrators chanted, referring to the country's prime minister of four decades, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has an office at the palace and has been a target of demonstrations."We want the prime minister to go," said Alaa al-Nasr, a 24-year-old demonstrator.

Another protester, 42-year-old Osama al-Nuwain, agreed."It’s mainly against Sheikh Khalifa -- they want this government to go," said Nuwain.

Protesters also chanted for the 2002 constitution, which established an appointed upper house that has veto powers over the decisions of the elected chamber, to be scrapped.

"The 2002 constitution falls for the sake of Bahrain," demonstrators chorused in a refrain that rhymes in Arabic. Bahrain is ruled by the Sunni Muslim Khalifa family but has a Shiite Muslim majority which has been at the forefront of the protests.

"Our problem is a political one," Sheikh Ali Salman, the head of the Shiite opposition Islamic National Accord Association, or Al-Wefaq, told the crowd of protesters.

"We need political reforms -- lead the people to elect their government, and not a government that remains on our chests for 40 years, with all its failure," he said, referring to the prime minister’s four-decade tenure. As in a speech on Friday, Salman also emphasised Sunni-Shiite harmony.

"We want a home which has security for Sunnis and security for Shiites, and dignity for Sunnis and dignity for Shiites," he said.

"We want to get rid of Al-Khalifa dictatorship, but we don't want to be under a Shiite dictatorship, or a dictatorship of a party," Salman said.

Residents of Hamad Town, south of Manama, said police had intervened to break up Sunni-Shiite clashes late on Thursday, the first outbreak of sectarian violence since the protests began.

Opposition groups have stopped short of demanding outright regime change, instead calling for major reforms including an elected parliament "with full legislative powers."

"We came here because we don’t want this government," said Nawal Hassan, a 29-year-old protester at the palace, who wore the traditional black abaya robe and veil, with a Bahraini flag around her neck like a cape.

"We don’t want them! Let all the world know," she said. The protest began around 9:00 am (0600 GMT) and lasted about three hours.

Demonstrators continue to keep vigil in hundreds of tents at Manama's Pearl Square, which has become the epicentre of the anti-government protests.

Thousands of people on Friday made a human chain between the square and the al-Fateh Sunni mosque six kilometres (3.7 miles) away, calling for the removal of the government and sectarian harmony.

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