MANAMA, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Bahrain has taken "important steps" towards reform, but needs to do more to heal the rifts left after it crushed a pro-democracy uprising last year, a senior U.S. official said during a visit to the Gulf state on Thursday.
Almost a year after the Feb. 14 start of the protests, which were quickly put down with help from Saudi troops, police still clash daily with youths in mainly Shi'ite Muslim neighbourhoods who complain of political and economic marginalisation by the Sunni ruling elite.
"We continue to receive credible reports of excessive force by police, including widespread and sometimes indiscriminate use of tear gas," said Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner.
"We urge Bahraini authorities to ensure compliance with international doctrines of necessity and proportionality."
Posner also said in a statement that charges against those accused of offences related to political expression should be dropped and peaceful protests allowed to go ahead.
Fourteen opposition figures convicted of leading the protests are in jail, some serving life sentences.
Opposition parties, which this week launched a week-long sit-in to put pressure on the government, have said their protests will not stop until the ruling Al Khalifa family ends its monopoly on power and the 14 are released.
Activists say more than 60 people have died in the past year's violence, some from teargas inhalation, some hit by cars chasing fleeing youths. The government disputes the causes of death.
Posner said the police force should be more representative of Bahrain's ethnic balance, workers dismissed after the protests should get their jobs back, and doctors and nurses facing charges linked to the protests should not be subjected to criminal prosecution.
The government has said the island's majority Shi'ite Muslims coordinated the protests with Iran for sectarian reasons, an accusation the opposition has denied.
A commission of international lawyers set up by the government last year to probe the unrest detailed incidents of torture including sexual abuse and electric shocks.
Posner said officials responsible for violations detailed in the report should be punished, but welcomed moves by the government, such as granting the Red Cross access to prisons and rebuilding religious sites, as signs of its commitment to address the underlying cause of the unrest.
He urged all sides to remain peaceful, criticising recent violence by some opposition demonstrators.
"We condemn the violent street actions that have escalated in recent months and that have included attacks on police with Molotov cocktails, metal projectiles and other instruments of harm." he said. "Such violence undermines public safety and further divides society." (Reporting by Andrew Hammond; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Tim Pearce)