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Bahraini protesters fill capital to demand reforms

Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters filled Bahrain's capital Friday to boost pressure for sweeping political concessions before possible talks to end nearly two weeks of demonstrations in the strategic Gulf island kingdom.

At least two major processions converged on Manama's landmark Pearl Square, the focal point of the uprising pushing for democratic change. The afternoon gathering represented one of the protesters' largest shows of strength so far.

Security forces made no immediate attempt to halt the marchers in an apparent sign that Bahrain's rulers do not want to risk more bloodshed and denunciations from their Western allies.

Bahrain is the first Gulf state to be thrown into turmoil by the Arab world's wave of change. The unrest is highly significant for Washington because Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which is the Pentagon's main counterweight against Iran's widening military ambitions.

Bahrain's Sunni monarchy, meanwhile, is under pressure from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf rulers not to yield to the Shiite-led protesters, fearing it could open footholds for Shiite powerhouse Iran.

Shiites account for about 70 percent of Bahraini's 525,000 people, but have long complained of discrimination and other abuses by the Sunni dynasty that has ruled for more than two centuries. Many protesters have called for the monarchy to surrender many of its powers and privileges to the elected parliament.

The government had declared Friday a day of mourning for the seven people killed in clashes since Feb. 14.

Many protesters waved Bahrain's red-and-white flag and chanted: "No dialogue before the government is dissolved."

Some demonstrators called on the U.S. to do more to support their cause.

"These people are fighting for freedom," said Hussain Isa al-Saffar, 25. "The U.S. is supporting freedom. It should be supporting freedom here."

The White House said National Security Adviser Tom Donilon talked with Bahrain's crown prince Thursday to voice support for efforts to pursue reforms through dialogue with opposition groups. U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also held talks with Bahraini leaders Thursday.

In Pearl Square, a massive Bahraini flag was hoisted along with the phrase "Martyrs' Square" in Arabic, a reference to those killed by security forces. Graphic photos of the dead were posted in the square, and a noose was fashioned around a portrait of Bahrain's prime minister.

Dozens of tents have been set up by protesters intent on fortifying their position. Anti-government graffiti has been spray-painted on a towering monument to Bahrain's heritage as a pearl-diving center that dominates square.

The marches followed a sermon by a senior Shiite cleric who said any talks between anti-government protesters and the kingdom's rulers must lead to clear reforms.

"We don't want dialogue for the sake of dialogue," Imam Isa Qassim told worshippers. "We want a meaningful, viable and sustainable process. ... We seek a fundamental change to the current political process based on legitimate demands."

Bahrain's Sunni rulers have offered to talk with Shiite opposition groups to try to defuse the showdown, but the opposition has been slow to answer the call.

The opposition appears split in its aims, with some seeking greater democratic reforms, including the removal of the long-serving prime minister — the king's uncle. Others, however, are demanding the ouster of the ruling regime altogether.

Also Friday, Lebanon's state-run National News Agency said a prominent Bahraini opposition leader whose return to the kingdom was stalled Tuesday when his passport was confiscated in Beirut is now free to travel.

The possible return of Hassan Meshaima after months of voluntary exile in London could mark a new phase for the protest movement. He is the head of a Shiite group known as Haq, which is considered more hard-line than the main Shiite political bloc that has taken a lead among the protesters.

It was not immediately clear when he would return to Bahrain.

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Associated Press writer Elizabeth A. Kennedy contributed reporting from Beirut.