MANAMA Shi'ite Muslim protesters filled streets in Manama on Tuesday demanding the fall of the Sunni-run government in the biggest protest since unrest began last week, while the return of a key opposition figure was delayed.
Tens of thousands of opposition supporters marched to Pearl Square -- the focal point of the week-long protests in central Manama -- to press demands for political reform in a country dominated by the Sunni Muslim minority.
Led by opposition groups such as Wefaq and Waad, it was the first organized demonstration and followed spontaneous protests by a rising youth movement relying on social media.
"We want the fall of the government" was the most common chant. "Some want the family out but most (want) only the prime minister (to quit)," said protester Abbas al-Fardan. "We want a new government, the people need to rule the country."
The protesters want a constitutional monarchy, in contrast to the current system where Bahrainis vote for a parliament that has little power and policy remains the preserve of an elite centered on the al-Khalifa family.
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.
Hassan Mushaimaa, leader of the opposition Haq movement, had said on his Facebook page on Monday that he wanted to see if the island nation's leadership was serious about dialogue or if it
would arrest him and was due to arrive on Tuesday evening.
Mushaimaa, who is based in London, is one of 25 people on trial since last year over an alleged coup plot but a statement by King Hamad bin Isa on Monday hinted that the trial would be shelved, allowing Mushaimaa an unhindered return.
But Mushaimaa was unabled to board his flight to Bahrain in Beirut where he had landed earlier for a planned stopover.
Abbas al-Amran, who described himself as a friend of Mushaimaa, told Reuters from London that Mushaimaa's name had probably still been blacklisted on security lists.
"He could not catch any other flight tonight so probably he will fly tomorrow," he said.
State media said the king had ordered the release of convicted prisoners whose names would be released on Wednesday and a stop to ongoing court cases -- opposition figures said they understood this to mean the trial will be shelved.
"We're expecting this even though we don't know for sure," said Jasim Husain of the Shi'ite Wefaq group.
It was not clear if this would be enough to bring opposition groups into a dialogue that King Hamad has asked his son, the crown prince, to conduct.
"His royal highness continues to call for all Bahrainis to engage in this new process (of dialogue) to move away from polarization and ensure that sectarianism does not take root," government spokeswoman Maysun Sabkar told a news conference.
She said the crown prince had met some opposition leaders in recent days, though opposition groups say no dialogue has begun yet. Sabkar said she had no information on prisoner releases.
Inspired by peaceful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, protesters set up camp at Pearl Square after security forces tried to break up their protest but then withdrew last week.
Seven people died and hundreds were wounded, and the violence led U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to condemn government attempts to crush the demonstrations, limiting the government's room for man oeuvre.
But Bahrain, host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, remains a key U.S. ally, and Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen had words of support for the leadership on Tuesday.
"The crown prince and the king took bold steps a couple of days ago by pulling their forces off the street ... He clearly has taken steps to engage the opposition, if you will," Mullen told reporters in the United Arab Emirates.
"I think those are positive steps and we will see where it goes from there," Mullen said.
The Sunni monarchy has been seen by the West and Arab allies as a bulwark against the influence of Shi'ite power Iran. Neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil producer, has a restive Shi'ite minority of its own in its Eastern Province.
In a speech to the Kuwaiti parliament on Tuesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron praised security cooperation with Gulf countries but said people should get their rights.
"History is sweeping through your neighborhood," he said of protests that have also taken place in Kuwait, Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Morocco, Jordan and Iraq as well as Iran.
"Not as a result of force and violence, but by people seeking their rights, and in the vast majority of cases doing so peacefully and bravely," Cameron added.
Kuwait has the most advanced democratic tradition in the Gulf region, in most of which Western-backed dynasties have given their people little right to political representation. But Kuwaiti police clashed this week with hundreds of stateless Arabs known as Bidoon who want Kuwaiti nationality rights.
The Bahrain government denies it treats Shi'ites unfairly and in a rally widely covered by state television on Monday, thousands carried Bahraini flags and signs supporting unity and the dialogue proposed by the government.
A resolution read at the rally rejected any attempt to question the government's legitimacy, but also called for the release of prisoners of conscience.
Shi'ites account for about 70 percent of the population but are a minority in Bahrain's 40-seat parliament because of an electoral process that they say shuts them out.
On Monday the government canceled the March 13 opening race of the motor racing Formula One season in Bahrain.
Mushaimaa's Haq movement is more radical than the Shi'ite Wefaq party, from which it split in 2006 when Wefaq contested a parliamentary election. Wefaq's 17 MPs resigned last week in protest at the state's use of violence against the protesters.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond; editing by Tim Pearce)