MANAMA - More than 10,000 government loyalists demonstrated in the Bahraini capital late on Monday in a show of support for the island's Sunni Muslim leaders, grappling with unprecedented protests by majority Shi'ites.
Queues of cars 5 km (3 miles) long snaked towards Manama's Fateh mosque, crammed with supporters waving red and white national flags and chanting slogans backing Sunni ruler King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
Across town at Pearl Square, focal point of protests this month by Bahrain's Shi'ites, some 10,000 were gathered demanding sweeping reforms in a country they say has discriminated against their majority community for decades.
Sunni loyalists say Bahrain's differences should be resolved in parliament, where the opposition Shi'ite Wefaq bloc held 18 of 40 seats until it quit parliament after riot police stormed the Pearl Square protesters last Thursday, killing four people.
A total of seven people have been killed and hundreds wounded in Bahrain's worst unrest since the 1990s, inspired in part by unprecedented revolts that toppled the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia and rattled leaders across the Arab world.
Sami al-Buhairi, a pro-government Sunni politician from the Asalah bloc, told Reuters that Shi'ites should sit down with Sunnis for talks to end the turmoil.
"This is the best democracy in the Arab world," said Buhairi after attending an earlier pro-government rally. "There's parliament, there's a constitution, there are rules."
At another loyalist demonstration some people said Shi'ite complaints they are treated as second-class citizens were unjustified.
"There are no problems in Bahrain. Do you see any problems?" asked Abu Ali, pointing to the procession of about 1,000 supporters of the royal family.
Teenagers revved up the engines of their jeeps and pickup trucks and music blared out. Others showed their gratitude to the royal family in a more measured way, carrying posters of the king and waving flags.
"I have seen Bahrain grow under the wise leadership of the king from the 1970s when there was little infrastructure and people were riding donkeys for transportation," said Nasser Shezad, a 47-year-old steel company employee.
Shi'ites say that development hasn't trickled down to their poor villages, worlds away from Manama's corporate towers.
In 1999 King Hamad enacted a constitution allowing elections for a parliament with some powers, but royals still dominate a cabinet led by the king's uncle who has been premier for 40 years. Shi'ites feel cut out of decision-making and excluded from jobs in the army and security forces.
MP Isa al-Kooheji shook hands with supporters and kissed children at the procession as he reflected on the issue.
"They have been complaining about these things for decades," said Kooheji. "Come on, it's 2011. They can sit and talk with us," he said. (Editing by Tim Pearce)
© 2015 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.