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Tue 14 Feb 2012 03:46 PM

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Bahrain set for fresh protests on revolt anniversary

Unrest among majority Shi'ite Muslims has revived, posing a sensitive new challenge to the Sunni Muslim ruling elite

Bahrain set for fresh protests on revolt anniversary
Bahrain set for fresh protests on revolt anniversary
Bahraini women wave their national flag during a rally of Shiite employees who were dismissed from their jobs over pro-democracy protests, near the ministry of labour in Isa Town, south of the capital Manama, on December 27, 2011. (AFP/Getty Images)

Bahraini protesters dissatisfied with the government's reform moves prepared for a fresh attempt to retake a landmark roundabout on Tuesday, the first anniversary of a pro-democracy uprising crushed by the Gulf Arab kingdom.

Unrest among majority Shi'ite Muslims has revived, posing a sensitive new challenge to the Sunni Muslim ruling elite who have been an important strategic ally of the West by hosting the U.S. Fifth Fleet to counter Shi'ite Iran across the Gulf.

The uprising broke out on Feb. 14, 2011 and mainly Shi'ite protesters occupied Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama for a month before security forces broke up the movement, inspired by revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, and imposed martial law.

The roundabout, which had a giant concrete edifice featuring a pearl that was later taken down, was shut to traffic and remains that way, renamed as al-Farouq Junction, and under tight guard. That security was beefed up in recent days as opposition activists sought to reclaim the symbolically rich space.

It remains enclosed by barbed wire on most sides and security guards have set up an encampment nearby.

A group of youths walked towards the area from the Shi'ite village of Sanabis on the edge of Manama early on Tuesday morning, and activists posted images of other sporadic attempts to approach the site. Activists said some people had been arrested but the interior ministry could not confirm that.

On Monday, hundreds of protesters broke away from an authorised opposition party march to march down the main highway into Manama, bound for the roundabout, before police stopped them with tear gas and rubber bullet pellets. Street battles ensued with youths throwing petrol bombs, rocks and iron bars.

In Tuesday's early hours, youths flung volleys of petrol bombs at police cars that sped past to avoid being hit. They chanted in favour of Hassan Mushaimaa, a jailed Shi'ite leader who called for a republic last year.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa told the nation in an address on state television on the anniversary eve that he remained committed to reforms launched a decade ago, a process the opposition has dismissed as cosmetic.

"(This) marked the launch of a development and modernization process, which is still moving forward to meet the aspirations of our loyal people in all areas," said the king, whose family has run the Gulf island state for over 200 years.

He said he had pardoned 291 prisoners, but they did not include those arrested during last year's revolt. The opposition are demanding the release of 14 leading figures who were jailed by a military court for allegedly trying to stage a coup.

Young men justified this week's disturbances by saying they were in constant conflict with police who treat them harshly. "This is just one way of expressing our protest," said one, who declined to give his name out of concern for his own safety.

He said they were ignoring calls by Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the leading Shi'ite opposition party Wefaq, not to throw petrol bombs. Analysts says Wefaq, which supports the monarchy, fears losing support to figures like Mushaimaa.

"We respect the opposition but everyone has to choose their own path. Ali Salman doesn't really know the situation we live in," he said.

Feb. 14 is not only auspicious for last year's uprising. It is the date of a 2001 referendum on a national charter on reforms King Hamad introduced to end a 1990s uprising.

Opposition parties say the constitution promulgated a year later was a disappointment because it neutralised the powers of an elected assembly with an upper house of royal appointees.

Wefaq and other opposition parties, including the secular Waad led by jailed Sunni political Ibrahim Sharif, want constitutional changes that would give the elected chamber of parliament the authority to form governments.

After last year's unrest, the government granted parliament extra powers of scrutiny over ministers and budgets - but has not budged on the bigger opposition demands.

Bahraini authorities have hired U.S. and British police chiefs to help reform policing after revelations about torture and deaths of detainees during last year's crackdown.

One of them, former Miami police chief John Timoney, told Reuters this week the interior ministry was serious about reform and would hire Shi'ites in a new recruitment and training drive, but he said youth violence was posing obstacles.

Opposition parties and youths say they have noticed no improvement in police behaviour and accuse police of using harsh tactics for political reasons - to suppress dissent in Shi'ite villages that could form a critical mass of protesters again.