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The Mideast

Bahrain opposition marks raid anniversary

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March 16, 2011: Acitizen journalism web site in Bahrain, shows smoke and flames after clashes, between protesters and security forces in Pearl Square. (AP)

Thousands of opposition supporters rallied in Bahrain on Friday to mark the one-year anniversary of the military raid on the capital's Pearl Square, the epicenter of last year's Shiite uprising in the Gulf kingdom.

Thousands of protesters waved Bahraini flags, chanted anti-government slogans and demanded the release of political prisoners during the opposition rally in Mahooz, a western suburb of Manama.

Pearl Square in central Manama had served as the opposition's headquarters during the first weeks of the Shiite majority's campaign to loosen the Sunni dynasty's grip on power in the strategic island that is the home of the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet.

Security forces stormed the protesters' encampment at the landmark square, after authorities imposed martial law last March and tore down the pearl sculpture that marked the site of unprecedented political upheaval in the island nation.

The protests were inspired by other Arab revolts in Tunisia and Egypt against autocratic rulers.

At least 45 people have been killed in the Bahrain unrest, and hundreds have been arrested and tried on anti-state crimes.

The now heavily-guarded Pearl Square holds great symbolic value for Bahrain's opposition movement, and protesters have repeatedly tried to retake it. But the capital has largely been off limits to demonstrators in the past year.

Street battles between security forces and protesters still flare up almost every day in the predominantly Shiite villages around the capital.

Shiites account for about 70 percent of Bahrain's population of some 525,000 people, but say they have faced decades of discrimination and are blocked from top political and security posts.

The kingdom's ruling dynasty has promised reforms to end the upheaval, although it refuses to make the far-reaching changes the protesters and the country's biggest opposition movement, Al Wefaq, have demanded. These include ending the monarchy's ability to select the government, set key state policies and appoint most of the parliament members.