MANAMA, Bahrain — Thousands of Shiite protesters in Bahrain formed a human chain around the capital on Saturday as their campaign to loosen the Sunni monarchy's grip on power in the strategic Gulf nation enters its third week.
Tensions have been high in the Gulf kingdom, the host of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, since a street battle between Sunnis and Shiites on Thursday left at least a dozen people injured.
No police were in sight as protesters — men and women — held hands to encircle Manama, where Bahrain's Shiite majority has been leading daily demonstrations to end what they say are discriminatory policies and political persecution.
Seven protesters have been killed since Bahrain's Shiites took their grievances to the streets, rattling one of the wealthiest corners of the Middle East, where it was long assumed that oil riches would stave off the kind of unrest that has roiled Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya.
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Bahrain's sectarian division, however, left it vulnerable.
The island's security forces have been on high alert after Thursday's clash between Sunnis and the majority Shiites leading anti-government protests, centered at Manama's Pearl Square.
One of the Shiites' injured, 23-year-old Hussein Badr, said the attackers appeared to be Sunnis from other parts of the Arab world who were given Bahraini nationality under a policy to boost Sunni numbers.
Bahrain's Shiite majority has been ruled for 200 years by a Sunni dynasty. Its supporters rallied in separate demonstrations in the past weeks, but some members of Bahrain's minority Muslim sect joined the Shiite protesters in opposition to the ruling Al Khalifa family at Saturday's event.
"I am part of the human chain because I believe in unity," said Amal Freed, a 28-year-old paralegal and a Sunni. "My love for Bahrain doesn't mean that I have to be loyal to the royal family. I want my basic rights and the corrupted government to go."
Bahrain holds particular importance to Washington as the host of U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, the main American military counterweight to Iran's efforts to expand its armed forces and reach into the Gulf.