MANAMA, April 21 (Reuters) - Bahrain's controversial Formula One race will go ahead on Sunday despite opposition protests and street violence plaguing the island kingdom more than two years after pro-democracy protests began.
Young men have battled police officers in near-nightly clashes in the Gulf Arab country - a key Western ally that hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet - since protests broke out in February 2011.
The country's Shi'ite-led opposition has also staged peaceful rallies that have drawn thousands of demonstrators demanding democratic reforms from the Sunni-led government.
But the Formula One race, which many in the opposition dismiss as a distraction from the country's urgent political problems, will go ahead as scheduled.
Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman al-Khalifa said over 15,000 people visited the circuit on Friday and more were expected on Sunday, despite the unrest. He dismissed the suggestion the government was using the race to paper over human rights abuses.
"What I would like to say is let's focus on what's positive, let's build upon the platform that we have, and let's celebrate this event with Bahrainis who are really passionate," he told reporters on Saturday at the Sakhir desert circuit, roughly 30 km (19 miles) southwest of the capital Manama.
Crown Prince Salman is a driving force behind talks between the government and main opposition groups aimed at breaking the political deadlock. He described the race as an opportunity to transcend national differences.
On Saturday, protests broke out in about 20 villages around Manama, human rights activists said, with protesters throwing rocks at police and security forces responding with tear gas in many cases.
Reuters could not independently verify most of the reports, but a Reuters witness saw young men scuffle with police in the Sanabis area west of the capital.
The government denies carrying out arbitrary arrests and torture and says any reports of wrongdoing by its security forces are investigated.
However, in contrast to the Shi'ite-inhabited villages where the clashes took place, there was little evidence of unrest in downtown Manama or around the race circuit at Sakhir.
Spectators there on Saturday for a Formula One qualifying round enjoyed a carnival atmosphere, watching music and dance performances and other activities geared towards children.
Watched by millions around the world, the opposition has hoped to use the race to put the spotlight on its pro-democracy campaign. The government has hoped to show unity and has portrayed the protesters as trying to undermine Bahrain's international image.
"This weekend is really about sport," Salman said. (Reporting by Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Angus McDowall and Stephen Powell)