By Andrew Hammond
MANAMA, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Sunni Muslims warned the Bahraini government at a rally against entering a dialogue with Shi'ite-led opposition parties, as pressure mounts for the Sunni-led Gulf Arab state to end unrest now entering its second year.
The tourism and banking hub, dominated by the Sunni Al Khalifa family, has been in turmoil since a protest movement for democratic reforms erupted on February 14 last year and was put down one month later with a period of martial law.
"How can there be a dialogue at this time? The majority of citizens ask, is this the time for dialogue and a political solution? Security is the priority!" said Khalid Bloashi, reading a statement from a Sunni youth group that organised the rally of about 20,000 people in central Manama late on Tuesday.
"The priority is deterring vandalism that aims to blackmail the nation for foreign agendas... We will never accept backroom dialogue, so for how long will the state ignore us?"
The warnings over dialogue come after it emerged last week that royal court minister Khaled bin Ahmed last month met figures from Wefaq, a Shi'ite Islamist party which won almost half of parliament seats in past elections, as well as three secular opposition parties on a separate occasion.
The crowd, carrying a sea of Bahraini flags peppered with the green flag of government ally Saudi Arabia and a few others, chanted back: "No dialogue! No dialogue!"
Recent months have seen an escalation in clashes between riot police and Shi'ite protesters. Shi'ites are thought to be a majority on the island and complain of political and economic marginalisation. The government denies this.
Protesters have thrown petrol bombs and iron bars. Activists say that while police have not used live fire, an official death toll of 35 last June has risen to over 60 as a result of heavy-handed use of tear gas, stun grenades and speeding police cars. Two people died in police custody last month.
The government disputes the causes of death and says it is investigating all cases.
Many Sunnis and other loyalists, who dominate state media, accuse Wefaq of exploiting the violence to force concessions. Police often license rallies and marches by Wefaq.
IN A RUT
Bahrain remains in a rut as protests continue. Some ratings agencies have downgraded banks, many office blocks stand half empty and weekend Saudi tourism is a shadow of what it was.
The British ambassador said this week Bahrain would have difficulty attracting foreign investment if it did not make economic and political reforms to help restore confidence.
Bahrain is a key Western ally and host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Washington supported the government during last year's protests, during which some called for setting up a republic, and Saudi Arabia sent troops to boost defences as fear gripped some of an Iranian intervention.
The statement read by Bloashi addressed the U.S. ambassador in Manama. Columnists often attack the United States for urging the government publicly to enter talks with Wefaq.
"Let the American ambassador listen: Bahrain is not a tool of America... We will not be a bargaining chip or a testing ground," he said, also calling for tolerance and coexistence in Bahrain and attacking government corruption.
The crowd carried banners such as "USA, will you stop playing with our national security?" and chanted "The people want to bring down Wefaq", a variation on the Arab Spring slogan "The people want to bring down the regime".
King Hamad bin Isa thanked the participants in a statement for affirming that the island should remain "an oasis of peace and security for those of all religions living there, without interference in its affairs", state news agency BNA said.
Tuesday's rally at the Fateh mosque was held to mark the first anniversary of a meeting at the same place where Sunnis had aired their fears that the protest movement, then a week old, had a Shi'ite sectarian agenda. (Edited by Richard Meares)