- Associated Press - Saturday, February 26, 2011

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — A prominent Bahraini opposition leader returned home from exile Saturday and urged the Gulf kingdom’s rulers to back up promises of political reform with action.

The return of Hassan Mushaima, a senior Shi’ite figure, could mark a new phase for an anti-government movement in the tiny nation which is strategically important for the U.S. because it hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

Mr. Mushaima heads a Shi’ite group known as Haq, which is considered more hard-line than the main Shi’ite political bloc that has led two weeks of protests. Mr. Mushaima returned Saturday from several months of voluntary exile in London, with a stop in Lebanon.

Mr. Mushaima was embraced and kissed by a small group of supporters as he emerged from Bahrain’s airport.

He called on the government to be more responsive to protesters’ demands for far-reaching political reforms.

“Dialogue … is not enough. Promising is not enough. We have to see something on the ground,” he told reporters. Bahrain’s rulers “have promised before but they did not do anything for the nation of Bahrain.”

The Bahraini opposition currently appears divided over whether to demand an end to the Sunni monarchy or offer it a chance to remain in exchange for handing powers to the elected parliament.

Mr. Mushaima did not call directly for the removal of the monarchy, but insisted any changes should grant more power to the people. Asked if he hoped to lead the protest movement, he said: “I’m always saying to the people, ‘I’m your servant.’”

Daily anti-government protests in Bahrain erupted two weeks ago, as part of a wave of political unrest that is spreading across the Arab world. The movement in Bahrain is led by Shi’ites who account for about 70 percent of the country’s 525,000 people, but have long complained of systematic discrimination and other abuses by the Sunni dynasty that has ruled for more than two centuries.

On Saturday, thousands of protesters marched from the capital’s landmark Pearl Square to the prime minister’s office, calling for him to resign. The crowds surrounded the building on three sides and a few police deployed nearby did nothing to intervene.

Tens of thousands had filled the square Friday to boost pressure for sweeping political concessions

Mr. Mushaima had been among a group of Shi’ite activists accused of plotting to overthrow Bahrain’s rulers.

His return to Bahrain was briefly delayed when his passport was confiscated in Beirut on an Interpol warrant Tuesday. But Bahraini authorities suspended the trial this week, and Lebanon returned his passport Friday.

A Bahraini government spokeswoman has said that Mr. Mushaima will not be arrested after his return.

Bahrain is the first Gulf state to be thrown into turmoil by the Arab world’s wave of change. The unrest is highly significant for Washington because Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which is the Pentagon’s main counterweight against Iran’s widening military ambitions.