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MANAMA (Reuters) - A top U.S. lawman hired by Bahrain to help clean up its security practices after revelations of torture used to help crush a protest movement last year said the government was serious about reforms and but youth violence was posing obstacles.
Opposition parties, led mainly by majority Shi'ite Muslims, want reforms to let the elected parliament form governments and reduce the power of the ruling Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa family, making Bahrain the first Western-style democracy in the Gulf.
They often hold authorised marches and rallies but youth activists call their own protests that usually end in clashes with police in Bahrain, which stamped out an uprising with Saudi help in March 2011 but is grappling with renewed unrest.
The Gulf Arab state is a key strategic ally of the West, hosting the U.S. Fifth Fleet countering nearby Iran.
"There has been a huge increase in the use of Molotov cocktails (petrol bombs). There were five or six dozen flung in Sitra the other week. Police are responding to assaults they find themselves in," said John Timoney, who as Miami police chief in 2003-10 was credited as a "tough cop" who cut crime.
He was referring to the district of Sitra, an underdeveloped town populated by Shi'ite Bahrainis who have led protests since February 14, 2011 demanding an end to what they say is political and economic marginalisation by the Al Khalifa ruling elite.
Timoney said he found it hard to perceive political motivation in teenagers fighting with police, a daily occurrence that the government says opposition parties and Shi'ite clerics are not doing enough to stop.
"Kids appear on a scene and taunt police officers and fling Molotovs and iron bars, usually in back alleys. It's hard to dissect a political message coming out of that. It's rage more than anything," he said in an interview with Reuters.
Bahrain brought in Timoney and John Yates, former assistant commissioner of Britain's Metropolitan Police, after a report by a commission led by U.S.-Egyptian law professor Cherif Bassiouni pointed to torture of detainees and deaths in custody when Bahrain acted to crush the democracy movement last year.
Timoney praised the recently-appointed chief of public security Tariq Al Hassan. "(He) understands that reform is necessary and that in any organisation people resist change.
"We are in a process of revamping the entire internal investigative process. If there is a death in police custody or serious injury, these are being seriously investigated," Timoney said, adding that cameras would be installed in interrogation rooms as part of a new code of conduct.
"There are two long-term issues: integration in the force - getting more Shia in - and then training with the goal of really changing the culture of the organisation. That takes time but the ministry of interior is committed and is in process of hiring 500 new police officers," he said.
The opposition say they have noticed no improvement in police behaviour and that police use harsh tactics to try to suppress dissent on the streets of Shi'ite villages.
They say the death toll in the last year of turmoil has risen from 35 last June, when a period of martial law ended, to over 60. They say some of the deaths came from the effects of heavy use of tear gas, which often enters cars and homes, or from being hit by police jeeps racing after youths.
At least two have died in police custody. No police have died since March though many have been injured. Activists say youths are now beaten in locations outside police stations, a charge Timoney said he was not aware of.
The government disputes the causes of many of the deaths, which have fed a cycle of violence as subsequent funerals often descend into more clashes.
"I have been in the company of the minister of interior and I know he's concerned about excessive use of tear gas. I think there's less tear gas being used," Timoney said. ("Gas) entering your home is distasteful. But as far as (it) killing someone, there's nothing shown to me that they died (from that)."
The Bassiouni report said Bahrainis had a right to voice political views through peaceful protest. Police usually try to suppress protests led by prominent activists such as Nabeel Rajab and Zainab al-Khawaja, who was arrested on Sunday.
Timoney, whose Miami force drew criticism for its hardnosed handling of anti-globalisation protests during a 2003 free trade summit, said Bahraini police were grappling with how to treat protesters.
"Even (for) unlicensed peaceful protest, we are trying to develop protocols to handle those. If you can keep it within certain parameters, then as long as you are not causing chaos and closing highways, then we can probably live with it."
Though it is Shi'ites who clash with police, Bahrain's conflict crosses sectarian lines and some opposition parties contain Sunnis. The secular Waad party is led by one.
Editing by Mark Heinrich