Bahrain Tense Ahead of Grand Prix

Posted April 22nd, 2012 at 7:55 am (UTC-5)
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Formula One Grand Prix drivers are set to race in Bahrain despite violent demonstrations denouncing the event as a lavish spectacle by a ruling family that crushed Arab Spring protests last year.

Black smoke from burning tires drifted over an area near the capital, Manama, that saw mass demonstrations in the days before Sunday's race.

Security remains tight around Shi'ite villages in anticipation of protests called by the opposition February 14 Movement, which has pledged “three days of rage” to coincide with the Grand Prix.

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa said he would attend the race and has pledged his commitment to reform efforts in the kingdom.

But protests calling for an elected government and equal rights have intensified since Bahrain's Sunni ruling family insisted on going ahead with the race.

Demonstrators took their grievances to the streets again Saturday after opposition groups said a man was killed the day before during clashes with security forces.

Opposition leaders said 36-year-old Salah Abbas Habib Musa was targeted by security forces because he was a prominent activist in the February 14 movement, which has been the driving force of Bahrain's Shi'ite-led revolt.

Demonstrators hurling fire bombs have clashed nightly with police during the past week, and security forces responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and birdshot.

Last year's Bahrain Grand Prix was postponed and later canceled because of demonstrations.

Crown prince Salman bin Hamad bin al-Khalifa rejected calls to cancel this year's race, saying that would only empower “extremists.”

Bahrain's monarchy is the main backer of the Formula One, and the crown prince owns rights to the event. The royal family wants to use the Grand Prix to mend the country's international image despite increasingly violent confrontations between security forces and protesters.

Shi'ites 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 granted to the Sunni minority.

The country's leaders have offered some reforms, but the opposition says they fall short of demands for a greater voice in the country's affairs and an elected government.

The strategic kingdom is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.