Thousands stage anti-government protest in Bahrain

MANAMA Fri Feb 25, 2011 3:17pm EST

Demonstrators gather at Pearl Square in Manama February 25, 2011. REUTERS/Caren Firouz

Demonstrators gather at Pearl Square in Manama February 25, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Caren Firouz

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MANAMA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of mainly Shi'ite Bahrainis gathered in Manama on Friday, declared as a day of mourning by the government, in one of the biggest anti-government protests since unrest erupted 10 days ago.

Large crowds marched to Pearl Square, the focal point of the protests by an opposition youth movement seeking to bring down the Sunni-led government and calling for a new constitution, inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Bahrain saw the worst unrest since the 1990s last week when seven people were killed in protests by its majority Shi'ites who have long complained of discrimination in Sunni-ruled Bahrain, which is a close U.S. and Saudi ally.

The gathering was called by a council of leading religious figures, including Sheikh Issa Qassem, the most revered Shi'ite cleric in Bahrain.

The government had declared a national day of mourning for the protesters killed in clashes which erupted on February 14 and lasted until the government pulled all troops off the streets less than a week later.

"This is a positive step," said Jasim Hussain, a member of parliament for the main Shi'ite opposition group Wefaq. "But more could be done, like giving the families (of those killed) time on state television to express their feeling. State media has hardly covered this," he said.

Crowds moved slowly toward Pearl Square, waving Bahraini flags and chanting religious slogans and calling for the government to step down.

The government denies there is any discrimination against Shi'ites in Bahrain, who make up about 70 percent of the population but are a minority in Bahrain's 40-seat parliament because of an electoral process they say shuts them out.

Tens of thousands of pro-government protesters have also gathered several times in recent days, saying reforms launched by Bahrain's king a decade ago have resulted in freedoms and democracy unique in the Gulf Arab region.

The al-Khalifa dynasty has ruled Bahrain for 200 years, and the family dominates a cabinet led by the king's uncle, who has been prime minister since independence in 1971.

(Reporting by Frederik Richter; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)

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