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Checkered flag flies in Bahrain despite protests

CAIRO (MCT) — Cars raced and protests echoed across the island kingdom of Bahrain on Sunday as the embattled royal family gambled on the Formula One Grand Prix to portray stability after more than a year of rebellion, mass arrests and hunger strikes.

One of the world's premier sporting brands competed with the longest-running unrest in the "Arab Spring." Human rights groups criticized Grand Prix officials for allowing the nation's minority Sunni Muslim rulers to revel in international prestige. But majority Shiite Muslims used the limelight to refocus attention on abuses that have been eclipsed by revolts in Syria and other countries.

The small kingdom became a map of startling contrasts. Sleek cars careened at 200 mph past fans from across the Persian Gulf at a desert track guarded by security forces and barbed wire. Well beyond the whine of engines, protesters marched and tires burned to the sounds of tear gas rounds in cordoned-off Shiite villages ringing the capital, Manama.

Bahrain, a Washington ally and home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, permitted sports journalists to cover the event but did not grant visas to many news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times. Dissidents relied on the Internet to publicize the death Saturday of a protest leader, and provide updates on the health of Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, a human rights leader on a hunger strike for more than two months.