By Lin Noueihed and Frederik Richter
MANAMA (Reuters) - Thousands of Bahrainis turned out for a sermon of a major Shi'ite cleric Friday ahead of "Day of Rage" protests planned across the Gulf Arab country despite a ban imposed under martial law.
Troops and police fanned out across the small islan state with a restive Shi'ite Muslim majority after the Sunni Al Khalifa ruling family, confronted with popular demands for a constitutional monarchy, declared security is now the priority.
A pair of fighter jets was flying over Bahrain Friday morning and police and military forces erected additional checkpoints on major highways, searching cars.
Mats were laid out in the streets to accommodate the overflow of worshippers who listened over loudspeakers to the sermon at Drazi mosque by top Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Issa Qassim.
"What the Al Khalifa family don't seem to understand is that people are not afraid of death," said Najat, who prayed in the mosque's women section, dressed in a black robe.
"If they had agreed from the start to dissolve parliament and find a political solution then people would not have escalated their demands," she said, adding that she would join the protests planned for later in the afternoon.
There were no protests immediately after the Friday prayers.
Nine demonstrations appeared to be planned, across different parts of Bahrain, including one headed toward the airport and one that aims to "liberate" Salmaniya hospital.
Internet activists and Shi'ite villages across the country organized the marches for Friday, dubbed the "Day of Rage." But the mainstream Shi'ite opposition group Wefaq and parts of the youth movement, which led protests at Pearl roundabout in the capital dispersed by riot police a week ago, were not involved.
People demanding political and constitutional reforms, mostly members of the Shi'ite majority, launched mass protests against the ruling family last month, drawing strength from the unrest that has hit other Arab autocracies in recent months.
But last week, Bahraini authorities called in troops from Sunni-ruled neighbors Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, then declared martial law and uncorked a crackdown that drove the protesters from the streets.
Bahrain has banned all marches, but security forces have not broken up the funeral processions of civilians killed in the crackdown -- most of which turn into anti-government rallies.
More than 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shi'ites, and most are campaigning for a constitutional monarchy. Calls by hardliners for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed Sunnis, who fear the unrest helps Iran, a Shi'ite giant separated from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain by only a short stretch of Gulf waters.
Bahrain has made a formal complaint to the Lebanese government over an offer of support for protesters from Shi'ite group Hezbollah, Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa told Al Arabiya TV Thursday night.
"We did not take this decision without consulting the Gulf Cooperation Council," he said, referring to a six-member Gulf Arab economic and political bloc.
WEFAQ DISTANCES ITSELF
Western countries appeared to take the plans for Friday marches in Bahrain seriously. The British Foreign Office updated its travel advice to warn against travel to Bahrain and to inform Britons going there about the protests.
Wefaq, which draws crowds in the tens of thousands when it calls a protest, distanced itself from the demonstrations on Friday that were expected to attract mainly young people.
"Wefaq affirms the need to protect safety and lives and not to give the killers the opportunity to shed blood," it said.
Security forces raided Salmaniya hospital in the crackdown, removing several tents set up by protesters in previous weeks. Doctors and human rights groups say strict security has hampered medical access and that four medical staff have been arrested.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)