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US Defense Secretary in Bahrain to Discuss Reforms

Anti-government protesters demonstrate, March 11, 2011, in Riffa, Bahrain, where a riot police barricade prevented tens of thousands of demonstrators from marching to the royal court

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has traveled to Bahrain for talks with the kingdom's leaders about calls for reforms in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Gates flew into the capital, Manama, on Friday after attending a NATO meeting in Brussels. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says the defense secretary will use the previously unannounced visit to Bahrain to express U.S. support for the Sunni monarch but also encourage national dialogue to address concerns raised by the kingdom's Shi'ite majority.

Shi'ites have staged a series of anti-government protests.

On Friday, Bahraini police fired tear gas at thousands of mostly Shi'ite demonstrators who marched toward a royal complex near the capital, Manama.

Earlier, law enforcement officers had blocked off the complex in an effort to keep the anti-government protesters from clashing with armed supporters of the Sunni-led government. Government loyalists carrying swords, clubs and sticks had gathered near the royal palace.

Demonstrators on both sides threw rocks at police, who responded with tear gas.

Shi'ite-led opposition groups have been protesting against the government for weeks. The Shi'ite majority has long complained of being denied opportunities and services by the ruling Sunni monarchy.

Some of the opponents say the government has also given better opportunities to Sunnis from other countries who have been naturalized in Bahrain. On Wednesday, thousands of protesting Bahrainis called for a revision of the country's naturalization policies.

Meanwhile, a senior defense official traveling with Gates says the defense secretary will tell Bahraini leaders the "best path toward stability" is to "get out ahead of calls for reform."

The official called Bahrain a "very important strategic partner." The kingdom hosts the U.S. Navy's fifth fleet, which supports operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP.

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