- Protesters take to the streets near Manama on Friday
- The protest is meant to show unity, a cleric says
- The government calls the march evidence of freedom of expression
- Next week, it will be one week since Gulf troops entered Bahrain amid a crackdown
Protesters marched on the outskirts of the Bahraini capital on Friday, demanding democratic reforms amid renewed tension in the island nation more than a year after the beginning of pro-reform demonstrations.
The marchers filled a four-lane highway between Duraz and Maksha, and ended peacefully despite skirmishes between police and some protesters who tried to break away from the main column and reach Lulu Roundabout, the focal point for dramatic standoffs as authorities cracked down on protests last year.
A few protesters were injured, but their wounds did not appear serious, according to eyewitnesses.
The march was "a prime example of how freedom of expression is guaranteed" by Bahrain's constitution, an Information Affairs Authority spokesman said in a statement.
Government officials also touted progress toward talks with opposition groups on a political solution. Nabeel bin Yacoub Al-Hamer, adviser to the king for media, told CNN Arabic that contacts with reform groups began last month.
"The situation is towards dialogue to all components of the Bahraini community and everyone has the desire to end this crisis experienced by Bahrain," he said.
Leading opposition groups have assured supporters that the outcome of any talks with the government to end the crisis would be put to a public referendum before being adopted.
Friday's march came in response to a call last week by leading Shiite clergyman Sheikh Isa Qass for a unified outpouring of support for reform in the Sunni-ruled but Shiite-majority country.
"This rally reflects the people's consensus on the political demands and their determination to not leave the streets until their demands are met," he said during his Friday sermon in Duraz.
According to organizers, Friday's rally was meant to dismiss claims that the calls for reforms were voiced by only a small number of people and to emphasize that such calls persist despite the crackdown.
Tension on the streets of Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, has been on the increase since protesters marked the first anniversary of the pro-reform protests on February 14.
Protesters have repeatedly tried to get to Lulu Roundabout, where security forces battled protesters last year before clearing the site. Security forces continue the occupy the square as they have since last March.
Further protesters and skirmishes are expected with the arrival next week of the first anniversary of the arrival of Gulf Cooperation Council troops and a crackdown by security forces that left several protesters dead and numerous others wounded or arrested.
Moderate opposition groups, including leading Shiite opposition grouping Al-Wefaq and key liberal groups, continue to support calls for reforms including changes to the constitution and a fully elected legislature. Some more hard-line critics of the government have called for the ouster of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, particularly in light of the crackdown.
According to the opposition, more than 70 people have been killed since the protests broke out.
In November, an independent inquiry commissioned by the king confirmed that security forces had tortured and used excessive force against civilians arrested during the crackdown and that thousands of workers were allegedly fired for participating in the protests.
Last month, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called "on all parties to exercise maximum restraint."
Bahrain and other Sunni-ruled countries in the region have accused Shiite-led Iran of meddling in the country's internal affairs and standing behind the protests.