Bahrain tightens security ahead of F1 weekend

Authorities in Bahrain on Friday stepped up security around the Formula One circuit after clashes between protesters and security forces intensified ahead of the controversial Grand Prix race in the Gulf Kingdom.

Last year, a wave of anti-government protests by the island's Shiite majority and a violent crackdown by the Sunni rulers prompted organizers to cancel the 2011 Bahrain GP. At least 50 people have been killed since the start of Bahrain's uprising, inspired by other Arab Spring revolts, and violence continues to roil the island.

The 2012 grand prix race -- Bahrain's premier international event -- will take place despite appeals by rights groups for another cancellation and pressure from protesters, including a jailed activist on a more than a two-month-long hunger strike. There have also been allegations of widespread human rights abuses in the tiny, but strategic island that is the home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

Additional security troops were deployed this week around the Bahrain International Circuit and across the capital, Manama. Supporters of the Shiite opposition plan to rally later Friday against the F1 race, which is backed by the ruling Sunni dynasty.

hiites account for about 70 percent of Bahrain's population of just over half a million people, but claim they face widespread discrimination and lack opportunities that the Sunni minority has. The country's leaders have offered some reforms, but the opposition says they fall short of Shiite demands for a greater voice in the country's affairs and an elected government.

Clashes between protesters and security forces have taken place almost every day for months. The unrest has intensified in the lead-up to the F1 race, including riot police firing tear gas and stun grenades at groups of opposition supporters rallying in the predominantly Shiite villages that ring Manama.

Opposition leaders from Bahrain's largest Shiite bloc, Al-Wefaq, said at least 50 people have been injured in the past two days when security forces fired pellets to disperse protesters on several occasions.

Authorities vowed zero tolerance for protests as they tried to present a sense of stability ahead of the F1 weekend. The rulers have also billed the race -- expected to draw a worldwide TV audience of about 100 million in 187 countries -- as an event that will put the divided society on the path of reconciliation.

On the track, teams will be practicing Friday and Saturday. The race is scheduled for Sunday.

Much of the protesters' anger has been directed at Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who owns the rights to the Bahrain GP. He is also the commander of the kingdom's armed forces, which the opposition supporters say have been enforcing the crackdown.

Last year, Salman was tasked to lead a national dialogue aimed at reconciliation between Shiite and Sunnis. The talks broke down without any compromise and have not yet resumed.

Bahrain's most senior Shiite cleric, Sheik Isa Qassim, condemned the Sunni rulers for staging the F1 race despite opposition protests. In a strongly worded sermon during Friday prayers, the cleric said the rulers cracked down on dissent aggressively "as if we are entering a war."

In Iraq, hard-line Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, denounced Bahrain for staging the grand prix while "blood is being shed" on the island. Al-Sadr also condemned the F1 teams for racing, saying their presence in Bahrain gives "support for injustices and the killings."

As a majority Shiite country, Iraq has backed Bahrain's Shiite-led protests.