More than 10,000 demonstrators joined Bahrain's first public rally in months Saturday as the leader of the Gulf nation's main Shiite political party urged backers to press ahead with peaceful protests for greater political rights after fierce crackdowns by security forces.
The event carried twin messages in a nation wracked by unrest since February when protesters took to the streets, inspired by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
The Sunni monarchy controlling Bahrain allowed the rally in a bid to ease tensions and open dialogue with Shiite-led groups. For opposition forces, the gathering was a chance to voice their demands and show resolve after facing relentless pressure from the Western-backed government, including martial law-style rules removed earlier this month.
"With our blood and soul, we sacrifice for Bahrain," the crowds chanted. They later cried "we are the winners" as security forces stayed back in a mostly Shiite area northwest of the capital, Manama. Police helicopters passed overhead. No clashes were reported.
The strategic island kingdom — home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet — has been in lockdown mode for months as Sunni rulers launched massive arrest sweeps and military patrols to quell the protests. The crackdown included bringing in a 1,500-story Saudi-led military force to back up Bahrain's embattled leadership, which claims that Shiite power Iran seeks to make gains by the unrest.
At least 31 people have died in the unrest since February. At the rally Saturday, demonstrators held a minute of silence for those killed.
Bahrain's Shiites account for about 70 percent of the population but allege they are victims of systematic discrimination by the ruling Sunni dynasty, including being barred from top political and military posts.
"We salute every mother who lived through the fear of having the door of her home kicked in by security forces or her children taken away. We salute every father who participated in the peaceful rallies," said Sheik Ali Salman, head of the Shiite political party Wefaq, whose 18 parliament members resigned in protest of the security crackdown. "We have lived through black months."
Bahrain's rulers removed the martial law-style rules on June 1 and urged talks with Shiite groups. But Bahrain's most senior Shiite cleric, Sheik Isa Qassim, told worshippers Friday that there is no chance for dialogue while security forces maintain clampdowns such as road blocks, arrests and trials of alleged protesters.
The cleric said the pressures were "building hatred among the people."
At the rally, Salman repeated demands made in the early weeks of the uprising, including replacing the monarchy-appointed government with elected leaders.
"Our demands are legitimate and the world stands by our rights," he told the crowd.
Salman made a point of saying Bahrain's Shiites have no outreach to Iran — directly challenging the views of Bahrain's leaders and their Gulf Arab allies. But he called on followers to continue nonviolent protests, which could bring further pressures from authorities.
"The national dialogue should be a real political solution, not a cosmetic dialogue," he said.
The U.S. has condemned the violence in Bahrain, but has stopped short of any tangible punishments against the rulers in one of Washington's military hubs in the Gulf.
President Barack Obama met earlier this week with Bahrain's visiting crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa. A White House statement said Obama urged Bahrain to respect the rights to free speech and peaceful assembly, but also reaffirmed America's strong commitment to the kingdom.
A State Department government report said Washington approved $200 million in military sales from American companies to Bahrain in 2010 — months before the Arab revolts that began in Tunisia and Egypt.
The yearly report showed a $112 million rise in licensed defense sales to Bahrain between the 2009 and 2010 budget years. The U.S. had green-lighted $88 million in military exports to Bahrain in 2009.
Much involved aircraft and military electronics, but the U.S. also licensed $760,000 in exports of rifles, shotguns and assault weapons in 2010. The possibility that American-built weapons might have been used against protesters has raised questions in Congress and led the department to review its defense trade relationships with several Middle East nations.