ABU DHABI Tens of thousands of people chanting anti-government slogans and holding up pictures of jailed activists took part on Friday in Bahrain's first authorized opposition protest since June.
No clashes occurred at Friday's march along a 3-km (2-mile) stretch of a highway west of the capital of Manama. Protesters carried Bahraini flags and held up images of rights activist and protest leader Nabeel Rajab, calling for his release.
Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based, has been in crisis since a revolt led by majority Shi'ite Muslims began 18 months ago to demand democracy in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
The government has denounced the protest movement, inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world, as sectarian and as part of a quest by Shi'ite Iran to dominate the region. Bahraini Shi'ites deny being steered from Tehran.
The rally, under the banner "Democratic Freedom" and organized by opposition groups led by the biggest bloc, al Wefaq, was the first since the interior ministry banned Wefaq-led marches in June, saying these had ended in violence.
Since the ban, clashes in Shi'ite villages have continued. On Aug 22, protesters pelted police with petrol bombs and stones at the funeral of a teenage demonstrator killed by police gunfire the previous week.
Rajab was sentenced two weeks ago to three years in prison on three counts of leading illegal protests, a verdict that drew criticism from Washington.
Opposition parties led by Wefaq are demanding full powers for the elected parliament to legislate and form governments. Many Shi'ites complain of being politically and economically marginalized, which the government denies.
On Thursday, Bahrain's deputy prime minister met members of Wefaq at the group's request, Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority said.
In response to the unrest, the ruling Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa family has increased parliament's powers of scrutiny over ministers and say policing is being revamped to conform with international standards.
The United States has pushed Bahrain's rulers to resolve the conflict through talks, but it values close relations that allows its fleet to run operations out of the Manama base.
Bahrain has been caught in a regional competition for dominance between Iran and U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia. Riyadh sent troops to shore up the Bahrain government last year, and Iran has championed the opposition cause while denying accusations it is orchestrating the unrest.
U.S. warships help ensure oil exports flow freely out of the Gulf. Iran has threatened a blockade if its protracted stand-off with Western powers over its disputed nuclear program degenerates into conflict.
(Writing by Raissa Kasolowsky; Editing by Michael Roddy)