Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Bahrain opposition consider talks

Bahraini anti-government protesters chant and wave Bahraini flags at the Pearl roundabout in Manama (AP)
Bahraini anti-government protesters chant and wave Bahraini flags at the Pearl roundabout in Manama (AP)
A protester chants at the Pearl roundabout in Manama, Bahrain (AP)

Bahrain's opposition wants the nation's rulers to guarantee they will back up their conciliatory words with actions, a Shiite leader said as he and other activists weighed the regime's offer for talks after nearly a week of protests and deadly clashes that have divided the Gulf nation.

The streets in the island kingdom were calmer as efforts shifted toward political haggling over demands for the monarchy to give up its near-absolute control over key policies and positions.

But bitterness and tensions still run deep after seesaw battles that included riot police opening fire on protesters trying to reclaim a landmark square and then pulling back to allow them to occupy the site. At least seven people have been killed and hundreds injured since the Arab wave for change reached the Gulf last Monday.

Bahrain's rulers appear desperate to open a political dialogue after sharp criticism from Western allies and statements by overseers of next month's Formula One race that the unrest could force the cancellation of Bahrain's premier international event.

Opposition leaders appear to be in no hurry to talk.

"Yesterday you kill people and today you want them to sit with you. It's not that easy," said a leader of the main Shiite opposition group Al Wefaq, Abdul-Jalil Khalil, adding no talks have yet taken place.

"We are not refusing a dialogue with the crown prince, but we need guarantees they will back words with action," Khalil said. He said the opposition's main demand is for the resignation of the government that is responsible for this week's bloodshed and has been led by the same prime minister - the king's uncle - for 40 years.

Bahrain holds particular importance to Washington as the host of the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, which is the main US military counterweight to Iran's efforts to expand its armed forces and reach into the Gulf. Bahrain's ruling Sunni dynasty has strong backing from other Gulf Arab leaders, who fear that Shiite powerhouse Iran could gain further footholds through the uprising led by Bahrain's Shiite majority.

More specifically, the protest demands include abolishing the monarchy's privileges to set policies and appoint all key political posts, along with addressing long-standing claims of discrimination and abuses against Shiites, who represent about 70% of Bahrain's 525,000 citizens.

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