MANANA, Bahrain – Thousands of anti-government demonstrators streamed toward the headquarters of Bahrain's state television Friday after sectarian clashes between Sunnis and the majority Shiites leading protests in the strategic Gulf nation.
The street fighting was brief, but it underscored the tensions building after nearly three weeks of unrest that has left the tiny island kingdom in a stalemate between the Sunni monarchy and Shiite-led demonstrators who claim widespread discrimination and demand a greater voice in the nation's affairs.
Demonstrators converged on Bahrain TV headquarters outside the capital, Manama, chanting slogans against the Sunni dynasty that has ruled for more than 200 years. Some women carried roses and placed them on the wall outside the TV compound.
As unrest sweeps the Middle East, Bahrain remains the most volatile point in the Gulf, although protests by job seekers flared this week in Oman and political opposition groups plan rallies next week in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Finance ministers from the regional bloc known as the Gulf Cooperation Council plan to meet Saturday to discuss a possible aid package for Oman and Bahrain, the two poorest nations in the Middle East's most wealthy corner.
Crackdowns by security forces have left seven dead in Bahrain — home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. The clash late Thursday between Sunnis and Shiites adds to fears that Bahrain could be dragged deeper into a sectarian conflict between Sunnis backing the monarchy and Shiites who represent 70 percent of the population.
Many Sunni leaders around the Gulf worry that Shiite powerhouse Iran also could use the uprising to expand its influence in the region.
"Those who will indulge in hatred because of sectarianism are committing crimes against future generations and against our nation," said a senior Shiite cleric, Sheik Isa Qassim, at Friday prayers.
But one of several Shiites injured, 23-year-old Hussein Badr, said the attackers appeared to Sunnis from other parts of the Arab world who were given Bahraini nationality under a policy to boost Sunni numbers.
"They were naturalized Bahrainis and they were beating us hard," Badr told The Associated Press from his hospital bed after being treated for a broken jaw and bruises across his body.
He said the attackers, in the mixed Sunni-Shiite suburb of Hamad Town, carried knives, glass bottles and chains.
He also claimed the police stood by "and did nothing to help us." But a statement by the Interior Ministry said forces intervened.
Bahrain's rulers have offered to open talks. A coalition of opposition groups agreed Thursday to hold meetings, but no date was set to begin dialogue.
The protesters appear inflexible on their core demand to oust the prime minister and the rest of the Cabinet.
They also are calling to reshape Bahrain's political system as a constitutional monarchy in which the king would hand over many powers — including the ability to appoint top political positions — to an elected parliament.
The official Bahrain News Agency reported that "legal procedures" have been taken against a Sunni government worker detained last month after making a pro-reform speech at Pearl Square, a landmark site in Manama occupied by protesters. The report said Mohammed Yousef al-Bouflasa, described as an "affiliate" of Bahrain's armed forces, would face charges for breaching military codes. It gave no other details.