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Thousands Attend Protest Victims' Funerals in Bahrain

Bahraini mourners march in funeral procession in the western village of Karzakan, Bahrain, carrying the body of Isa Abdel Hasan, who died Thursday during clashes in Pearl Square in the capital of Manama, February 18, 2011

Thousands of mourners have gathered in villages outside Bahrain's capital, Manama, to bury the victims of Thursday's crackdown on anti-government protests.

During funeral rites for the victims, the mostly Shi'ite mourners chanted slogans calling for the overthrow of the Sunni-led government.

The country's senior Shi'ite cleric has described the police raid on demonstrators as a "massacre." During a Friday prayer service in a northwestern village, Sheikh Issa Qassem said the government had shut the door on dialogue.

Meanwhile, hundreds of flag-waving government supporters rallied in the capital, Manama, Friday.

Bahrain's military took control of the capital Thursday, hours after riot police firing birdshot, rubber bullets and tear gas stormed an anti-government protest camp. At least five people were killed and more than 230 others were wounded. The military has banned public gatherings.

Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Khalifa, defended the regime's crackdown, saying it was necessary because the mostly Shi'ite demonstrators were pushing the country to the "brink of a sectarian abyss."

The Shi'ite al-Wefaq party, Bahrain's largest opposition group, resigned in its entirety from parliament after Thursday's clashes. The bloc's 18 deputies in the 40-member legislature had already vowed not to return until King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa agreed to transform the nation into a constitutional monarchy with an elected government.

Bahrain's king recruits foreigners to serve as police rather than trust Shi'ite citizens to wear uniforms and carry weapons. Shi'ites make up 70 percent of the population.

Fears have grown within Bahrain that the country would be at risk of widespread sectarian violence if the Sunni monarchy becomes more unstable. Arab leaders have been badly shaken in recent days, as popular uprisings and protests flair throughout the region. That has raised concerns in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, both Sunni-governed states with restive Shi'ite populations.

At an emergency meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Manama, Arab foreign ministers Thursday issued a statement of support for Bahrain, underscoring regional fears that the protests could spread. The group said it "stands hand in hand in the face of any threat to any GCC member."

Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet and is also a regional offshore banking center. The royal family has long been a strategic ally of the United States in efforts to fight terrorism and push back the regional influence of Iran.

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