By Andrew Hammond
SITRA, Bahrain (Reuters) - Bahraini police clashed with anti-government protesters on Saturday at a Shi'ite town where residents tried to demonstrate against the Gulf Arab state's holding of a Formula One race next month.
Hundreds of riot police backed by dark blue armored vehicles and jeeps patrolled the streets of Sitra, a poor district southeast of Manama where youths threw petrol bombs and stones at security forces who responded with tear gas canisters, Reuters witnesses said.
Sitra has long been a flashpoint area where Shi'ite Muslim youths vent anger against a government they feel marginalizes them politically and economically.
The Sunni-led government blames Shi'ite clerics for the communal conflict, saying they had turned people against the state and incited Shi'ites to raise the temperature on the streets ahead of the race.
Anger on the streets of Sitra rose each time patrols had passed and residents taunted security forces by shouting from inside houses, banging on trash bins and honking horns.
"Come here, you immigrants", youths shouted, referring to foreign Sunni Muslim hires working with riot police. Some chanted against the island's ruler, King Hamad.
"You know, it's been going on like this for 30 years, and they still don't want to give us our rights," said Ali Mansour, a 45-year-old taxi driver sheltering with his wife in a car as fumes began to seep in from more canisters that landed nearby.
Bahrain has been bitterly divided since its Shi'ite majority led protests last year for reforms they hope would reduce the powers of the ruling Al Khalifa family, give parliament legislative clout and bring opposition figures into government.
Some called for ditching the monarchy altogether, angering many Sunnis who view the royal family as a force for good and protection against Shi'ite empowerment.
The authorities crushed the protest movement, which was inspired by revolts that brought down entrenched rulers in Egypt and Tunisia, by imposing a period of martial law and bringing in Saudi and other Gulf Arab troops to help win back control of the streets.
But over a year later, ongoing unrest - with clashes in Shi'ite villages and large opposition party marches - has damaged Bahrain's economy and alarmed Western allies.
They view Bahrain as an important ally in their standoff with Iran over its nuclear program but want the government to resolve the conflict by reaching a deal with the opposition.
A U.N. rights body this week expressed concern over the use of excessive force and tear gas by Bahraini security forces.
Sitra is covered in anti-government graffiti describing the king as a tyrant and glorifying imprisoned community leaders. One poster cited a condemnation by Iran's leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of the concept of kingship as un-Islamic.
Many streets are strewn with concrete blocks, pieces of wood and trash bins to stop police cars moving into the back alleys.
King Hamad took power in 1999 and vowed to restore parliament and introduce democratic reforms, receiving a rapturous welcome in 2001. He freed prisoners after taking office but came under pressure to introduce further reforms following last year's protests.
Now Bahrain's Formula One Grand Prix on April 20-22 has become embroiled in the troubles, as opposition groups vow to step up protests. Police pulled down posters on the walls in Sitra saying "No Formula 1 in Bahrain".
"They are paying a lot for Formula One, while people are dying every day," said Mirza Rabia, 41, a government employee.
Activists say at least 33 people have died since June amid daily clashes in Shi'ite districts, as the government tries to lock protesters in to stop any renewed mass movement in Manama.
Police question the causes of death and their attribution to the conflict. They say they are showing restraint in the face of violent youth challenging state authority.
"We are the government and these guys are scum. Molotov cocktails are not peaceful, they make it rain with molotovs," said a police corporal who declined to be named.
He said it was difficult to imagine integrating people from Shi'ite communities into the police force - a key recommendation from former Miami police chief John Timoney who is advising the interior ministry on improving conduct.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond; editing by Sami Aboudi and Samia Nakhoul)