March 20, 2011 / 12:06 PM / 9 years ago

Life returns to streets of Bahrain after unrest

MANAMA (Reuters) - Shops reopened in Bahrain on Sunday and roads were busy again after weeks of protests and a state crackdown brought the Gulf Arab financial center to a near-standstill.

Masked soldiers still guard the entrances to the Pearl roundabout, focal point of protests. Diggers and trucks removed the last remnants of the Pearl monument there, which authorities have demolished after it became a symbol of the unrest.

The government plans to set up traffic lights in place of the roundabout, where only days ago protesters were handing out food and holding political rallies late into the night.

Bahraini police and troops moved on Wednesday to end weeks of protests by mainly Shi’ite demonstrators that prompted the king to declare martial law and led to troops being sent in from Bahrain’s fellow Sunni-ruled neighbors.

In the dusty wasteland that surrounds the former roundabout, dozens of cars sit, windows smashed and boots open, after police searched vehicles abandoned by protesters who fled a security sweep that drove them from the area on Wednesday.

In other parts of the capital, life was returning to normal. Shops and malls were open. Only the remnants of makeshift road blocks, set up by vigilantes after sectarian clashes broke out a week ago, remind Bahrainis of the tough weeks that have passed.

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The four malls lining the main thoroughfare from the center of Manama through the Pearl roundabout to the financial district had been closed since protesters from the Shi’ite majority overwhelmed police and barricaded the road a week ago.

The malls have begun to reopen, but since most lie inside the curfew zone, they are closing as early as 7 p.m. They would normally open until 10 p.m. on weekdays, later on weekends.

“We were closed for five days. We first tried to reopen on Friday but there was little work. Of course, there are fewer people than normal, but it is improving,” said Ahmed al-Bouaini, who has a shoe shop in one of Bahrain’s most popular malls.

“Opening hours affect us. When we rented this space, the understanding was that the mall opens 12 hours a day. Now we are losing three hours a day and four on Thursdays and Fridays.”

The ferocity of the crackdown, in which troops imposed a curfew and banned public gatherings, has stunned Shi’ites.

More than 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shi’ites. Most are campaigning for a constitutional monarchy, but calls by hardliners for the overthrow of the monarchy alarmed Sunnis, who fear the unrest serves Shi’ite power Iran, just across the Gulf.

Focused on restoring order, security forces have yet to erase graffiti sprayed around Manama calling for the end of the regime. But on some of the cars smashed up near Pearl roundabout, someone has sprayed “long live the king” and the armored personnel carriers nearby bear pictures of King Hamad.

“They talk about discrimination, but you should have seen how badly treated we were when we went to the health or labor ministries,” said Ibrahim al-Maloud, a Sunni, talking about ministries overseen by Shi’ite ministers.

“The king sends them sheep on their feast days and he has built them mosques and houses. Why this?”

Editing by Andrew Roche

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