MANAMA, Bahrain - Tens of thousands of antigovernment protesters flooded a major highway in Bahrain on Friday in one of the largest opposition rallies in months against the Gulf nation’s rulers. Security forces fired tear gas at smaller groups attempting to reach a heavily guarded square that was the hub of the uprising.
The march was a show of resolve by a Shi’ite-led rebellion against Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy more than a year after the Arab Spring-inspired protests began. The main procession was mostly peaceful, but breakaway groups were driven back by tear gas as they headed toward Pearl Square, which was the center of the uprising for weeks last year until stormed by security forces.
The demonstration was also a reply to Bahrain’s Sunni leadership, which has portrayed the uprising as losing steam ahead of next month’s lucrative Formula One Grand Prix car race, which was canceled last year because of violence on the tiny island.
The march stretched for miles. Some opposition leaders estimated the crowd at nearly 100,000, which would make it one of the largest protest gatherings since the street rallies erupted in February 2011.
Bahrain’s majority Shi’ites hope to end the Sunni dynasty’s control of all main posts and policies in the strategic Gulf nation, which is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Shi’ites make up about 70 percent of Bahrain’s 525,000 citizens, but they complain of widespread discrimination and say they are blocked from high-level political and security positions.
Bahrain’s rulers have offered concessions, including granting more decision-making powers to Parliament, but reject demands that include giving up the right to appoint holders of top positions, such as prime minister.
At least 45 people have been killed in the unrest, and hundreds have been arrested.
“Down, down Hamad,’’ protesters chanted in a reference to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Others carried signs in English or French denouncing the monarchy in an appeal to international media and websites.
Organizers said the march would end at a site called Freedom Square outside Bahrain’s capital, Manama. Police reinforcements were sent to keep protesters from Pearl Square, which is ringed by razor wire and under 24-hour watch.
The unrest in Bahrain has put the United States in a difficult position. Washington has called for dialogue to try to ease the tensions, but it fears that pressing too hard on Bahrain’s leaders might jeopardize its important military relationships. The Fifth Fleet is one of the Pentagon’s main Gulf forces on Iran’s doorstep.
Bahrain and its Gulf Arab allies have accused Shi’ite Iran of maintaining links to the Bahrain opposition groups, but no direct evidence has been produced.
In Baghdad, about 2,000 Iraqi Shi’ites called for Bahrain’s king to be banned from the Arab League summit set for the Iraqi capital later this month.
Iraq’s support for Bahrain’s Shi’ites has angered Sunni Gulf states. That was one of the reasons the League canceled plans to hold its summit in Baghdad last year.
The protesters, followers of hardline cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, also complained that President Bashar Assad of Syria was not invited. His Alawite religion is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
Syria has been suspended from the Arab League because of Assad’s brutal crackdown.