By Alan Baldwin
MANAMA, April 20 (Reuters) - Formula One cars took to the track in Bahrain on Friday, while the government, hoping for a successful Grand Prix, squared off against activists determined to mark it with "days of rage" after more than a year of Arab Spring protests.
On the eve of Friday's practice session, protests had flared in villages surrounding the capital, far from the circuit where the race will be held. Police fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse demonstrators in clashes that have been building in the week leading to Sunday's round of the World Championship.
Bahrain has been in turmoil since a democracy movement erupted last year following uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Protests were initially crushed with the loss of dozens of lives, but youths still clash daily with riot police in Shi'ite Muslim districts, and thousands take part in opposition rallies.
Bahrain's ruling al-Khalifa family, a Sunni Muslim dynasty ruling a majority Shi'ite population caught between neighbours Saudi Arabia and Iran with opposite sympathies in its internal strife, hopes the race will offer an opportunity to tell the world that life is returning to normal.
Unrest forced the cancellation of last year's Grand Prix, and the 2012 race has been in doubt as Bahrain's human rights record has come under fire from abroad.
Two members of the British-based Force India team, travelling between Bahrain International Circuit and their hotel in Manama, asked to go home after seeing burning petrol bombs in what the government described as an isolated incident.
"A number of rioters and vandals had been arrested for taking part in illegal rallies and gatherings, blocking roads and endangering people's lives by attacking them with petrol bombs, iron rods and stones," the Information Affairs Authority said in a statement, citing Major-General Tariq Al Hassan.
The Force India team said it would conduct only limited practice on Friday because of security fears.
Only small crowds were seen in the grandstand on Friday for an event that has cost Bahrain an estimated $40 million to stage . The Grand Prix drew 100,000 visitors to the nation of just 1.3 million and generated half a billion dollars in spending when it was last held two years ago.
Opposition parties led by Shi'ite group Wefaq planned to stage a march in a mainly Shi'ite residential district outside Manama later on Friday to demand democratic reforms in a country where the ruling Sunni Al Khalifa family dominates government.
Activists are taking the chance to press their case while the world is watching.
The leading Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim attacked the government in a sermon on Friday for ignoring popular demands.
"This is the crisis of a government that does not want to acknowledge the right of people to rule by themselves and choose their representatives," he said.
Manama is under tight security, with dozens of armoured vehicles stationed around the capital and the road to the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir.
Though life in Manama's main commercial, residential and tourist districts appears detached from the nightly battles, tear gas often floats in from conflict zones around the capital.
The death toll from the year of turmoil has risen to around 70, activists say, with many due to heavy use of tear gas. The government disputes the causes of death and accuses protesters in Shi'ite villages of being saboteurs out to harm the police.
Activists say riot police are trying to lock Shi'ites down in their villages to stop them gathering on main highways.
They say around 95 protest organisers have been arrested in night raids in the past week and 54 people wounded in clashes, with heavy use of birdshot. Police have declined to give figures on arrests and injuries.
While sports journalists poured in to cover the race, non-sports reporters from Reuters and some other news organisations have not been granted visas to visit the Gulf island.
"Bahrain wants the international attention brought by hosting a Grand Prix but doesn't want foreign journalists to wander from the race track where they might see political protests," said Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.
"Bahrain tells the outside world it has nothing to hide. If that's the case, then it must allow journalists entry visas and let them report freely," he added.
Bahrain is the base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, among whose tasks is deterring Iran from making good on recent threats to disrupt Gulf oil tanker routes to the West.
Washington has only gently prodded Bahrain's rulers to improve their human rights record and push forward political reforms, and does not want to jeopardise ties with a ruling family it views as an ally in the region.
"The F1 media spotlight will only highlight the ongoing troubles Bahrain faces in the absence of any serious attempts at political compromise," wrote Chatham House analyst Jane Kinninmont in online magazine Foreign Policy. (Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Will Waterman)