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Protests Intensify, Spread in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen

February 16, 2011 at 5:50 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: The wave of anger that brought down rulers in Egypt and Tunisia kept rolling today, from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. For the first time, protests broke out in Libya, long ruled by Moammar Gadhafi.

We begin with a report from Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Benghazi is Libya’s second biggest city. Eyewitnesses say police used rubber bullets to disperse around 2,000 people protesting and throwing stones last night. And with no independent media, these pictures were posted on the Internet.

The brief arrest of a human rights lawyer prompted these demonstrations, with one Libyan official claiming that most of the 14 injured were police.

The protests began outside Benghazi’s security directorate. The crowds called for the arrested lawyer’s release and then moved to other parts of the city, railing against corruption and against Col. Gadhafi’s 41-year rule.

At one point, a poster of Gadhafi was torn down. But Benghazi has seen protests before, and there is no organized opposition in Libya because political parties are banned. Col. Gadhafi is 69 now. Libyan television has today shown him greeting relatives of protesters killed in Benghazi five years ago, perhaps to show he’s on the people’s side.

He’s known as the leader of the revolution and doesn’t believe Libya needs another. He rules with no parliament and no constitution but with so-called people’s committees as laid down in the leader’s Green Book. This is state television on satellite showing Gadhafi’s supporters in several Libyan cities. Turning them out isn’t difficult. Seventy percent of the work force is employed by the state.

And though unemployment is high, Libya’s oil wealth generates cash to buy off discontent. But tomorrow could be different. This is an online video calling for a so-called day of rage on Egyptian lines. It shows Gadhafi with Hosni Mubarak and his friend Ben Ali, the deposed president of Tunisia.

And the question is whether enough young Libyans will overcome their apathy and their fear to demonstrate in large numbers. This evening, new pictures appeared, reportedly of protests in the city of Al Bayda. And there have been reports of preemptive arrests in the capital, Tripoli. Tomorrow’s been declared a public holiday, which could backfire against the regime if many more demonstrators then take to the streets.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, in Yemen, the trouble kept building today — 2,000 police blocked thousands of students in Sanaa from joining other protesters. And two people were killed in the city of Aden when police opened fire.

Amid the protests, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a U.S. ally, charged that forces with foreign agendas are spreading chaos in the region.

But in Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley dismissed that claim.

U.S. ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE P.J. CROWLEY: Every indication that we have, these are — these are spontaneous, these are indigenous, these are people across the region standing up and demanding more of their governments. And in fact in Yemen you have got — you’ve got a clash of protesters who want change and protesters who want the status quo.

JIM LEHRER: In Iraq today, violent demonstrations erupted about 100 miles southeast of Baghdad — 2,000 Iraqis demanding better services attacked government offices in the city of Kut. A top medical official reported 50 people were hurt. Police denied reports they had opened fire.

In neighboring Iran, government supporters and opponents clashed at a funeral for one of two people killed in Monday’s protests. And in a speech, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected President Obama’s criticism of Iran for using force against protesters.

AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI, supreme leader of Iran (through translator): America can bully a country as long as the people are not standing up to it. The governments are easy to bully. The governments who do not rely on their people have come to power or leave power at the order of the U.S. One day, America appoints someone and supports him, and another day gives up support for him, and he has to leave.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And across the Persian Gulf from Iran, demands grew for sweeping change in Bahrain. Huge crowds of protesters demonstrated again in the island kingdom, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Majority Shiites filled the main square in the country’s capital. There were mounting cries to remove the Sunni monarchy that has ruled for 200 years.

U.S. officials maintained a cautious approach. A spokesman for the Fifth Fleet said that so far, the protests have not targeted the U.S. Navy’s presence.