MANAMA, Bahrain — A tent city in the heart of the capital was wiped away Wednesday morning in a cloud of tear gas and a hail of rubber bullets after the government dispatched troops against pro-democracy demonstrators in defiance of U.S. warnings.
Trails of acrid black smoke floated over Manama as trash bins and tires were set alight across the city. By late afternoon, the military had announced a 12-hour curfew for most of the downtown area, including Pearl Square, which has been the hub of the demonstrations.
The early-morning sweep came despite U.S. insistence that dialogue, not violence, was the only way to end the crisis that has convulsed Bahrain for more than a month. It drew an unusually sharp rebuke from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is visiting the Middle East.
"They are on the wrong track," she told reporters in Cairo. "There is no security answer to this," she added, referring to the protesters' demands, "and the sooner they get back to the negotiating table and start trying to answer the legitimate needs of the people, the sooner there can be a resolution."
The assault Wednesday, which left at least five people dead, was similar to a nighttime raid on Pearl Square in February that killed at least four. But it appeared in some ways to deliver a more definitive blow to the protesters, followed not just by the curfew but by tougher government rhetoric and a heavier troop presence on the streets.
The move also came after two days in which dozens of tanks and hundreds of troop carriers, personnel carriers and water tankers streamed over a causeway connecting Bahrain to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has said it will do whatever it takes to ensure the survival of the al-Khalifa monarchy, which has ruled Bahrain for more than two centuries.
Saudi troops and forces from other gulf countries did not appear to take part in Wednesday's action, but the decision to clear the square highlighted a profound sectarian divide in the region. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described the assault as "foul and doomed," according to Iran's state-run news agency. And in Iraq, the highly influential cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called on Bahrain's government to stop using violence against its citizens. Sistani rarely comments on politics, and his words hold great weight for Shiites in the region.
The mostly Shiite protesters in Bahrain have been calling for democratic reforms and an end to what they say is systematic discrimination against them by the Sunni monarchy. Shiites make up about 70 percent of the population in Bahrain, according to most estimates but constitute only a minority in a Parliament that is largely powerless anyway.
Saudi Arabia has voiced concern that if Bahrain is taken over by Shiites, the country would become a satellite state of Iran. But the crackdown may only increase protesters' sympathy for the Shiite-ruled country, some observers said Wednesday.
"For the Saudis to be here is a challenge to the Iranians," said Jasim Husain, a member of the main Shiite opposition party, al-Wefaq. "This is something we wanted to avoid." Protesters have strenuously maintained that they were not controlled by Iranians, an assertion largely supported by U.S. officials.