Anti-government protesters waged scattered clashes against a massive security contingent on Friday, the eve of special parliamentary elections in Bahrain that Shiite-led opposition groups vow to boycott in a potential embarrassment to the Gulf kingdom's Sunni rulers.
The street skirmishes _ with riot police firing tear gas and protesters hurling stones _ fell far short of the calls by activists to storm back into a central square that was once the hub of demonstrations for greater rights. But the widespread violence underscored the deeply rooted tensions across the strategic island nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
A small turnout for Saturday's elections also would send another strong message of defiance to the ruling Sunni dynasty as it struggles to quell a 7-month-old uprising by Bahrain's majority Shiites, who seek to break the monarchy's control of government posts and all major policy decisions.
A mass resignation of all 18 Shiite lawmakers in the 40-seat parliament forced the special election. After reconciliation talks stalled in July, the main Shiite parties then called for a boycott of the voting _ which is certain to leave the parliament totally in pro-government hands.
Bahrain's parliament has only limited powers, but it was seen as one of the few open forums in the Gulf for political criticism and debate among the region's fraternity of ruling monarchs and sheiks.
Shiites represents about 70 percent of Bahrain's population of about 525,000, but they claim decades of systematic discrimination that includes being cut out from top government or political posts. The Sunni rulers, however, enjoy a buffer that no other leadership can match among the Arab Spring unrest: Unwavering backing from powerful neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, and continued support from the U.S. and Western allies.
Washington has urged both sides in Bahrain to continue with dialogue, but has been cautious not to fray its important military and political partnerships among Gulf Arab leaders _ which also share U.S. concerns about Iran's ambitions to expand influence. Bahrain's rulers have repeatedly played the Iran card, claiming that gains for its Shiite majority would also open the door for Shiite powerhouse Iran.
At the United Nations on Wednesday, President Barack Obama urged Bahrain's leaders to take greater steps toward reform, but added that American remains a "close friend."
More than 30 people have died since the protests started in February. Hundreds of activists have been arrested on anti-state charges, including some convicted of seeking to overthrow the state and handed life sentences.
In recent weeks, Bahraini authorities have stepped up pressure on anti-government activists ahead of the elections, threatening to jail those who use social media and websites to urge acts of dissent. State media has portrayed the boycott calls as tantamount to treason.
"This is fake democracy," said Bahrain's most senior Shiite cleric, Sheik Isa Qassim, at Friday prayers.
He described the voting as meaningless when "there is a class of society under repression and there are obstacles at every turn, blocking their voice."
After nightfall, thousands of people in mainly Shiite areas cried out "God is Great" in a sign of solidarity and resolve.
Bahrain lifted martial law-style rule in June. Since then, government opponents have clashed with police almost every night.
On Friday, sporadic clashes with police took place in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods on the outskirts of the capital, Manama. Riot police fired tear gas at groups of protesters and chased opposition supporters along narrow alleys of the capital's suburbs. There were no reports of serious injuries.
Police also stormed a shopping center near Pearl Square _ the former epicenter of the protests _ after a group of opposition supporters inside started chanting anti-government slogans. Security forces detained several "vandals for rioting and spreading fear among public" inside the mall, the Interior Ministry said on its official Twitter account. Later, state TV broadcast the prime minister visiting the mall with people chanting pro-government slogans.
Manama's landmark square has been heavily guarded since Bahraini forces stormed the protesters' encampment camp there six months ago. In the past days, security around the site has been further fortified with rows of barbed wire and lines of armored personnel carriers and police vehicles _ many marked by splashes of green paint thrown by protesters.