Bahrain protest leader: anti-monarchy option open

AP News
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Posted: Mar 08, 2011 6:54 AM
Bahrain protest leader: anti-monarchy option open

A senior opposition leader said Tuesday he would support demands to oust Bahrain's monarchy if that becomes the overwhelming sentiment of protesters whose chants have increasingly targeted the 200-year-old dynasty.

The statement by Hassan Mushaima appeared to open the door for a more hard-line approach by key opposition factions that have not yet unified their stance on how deeply to press for reforms.

It also could further complicate appeals by Bahrain's rulers to hold negotiations to ease the three-week-old unrest, which has left seven people dead and protesters staging daily marches in the strategic island kingdom _ which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

Mushaima, who returned to Bahrain last month after self-exile in London, said it's up to the "people on the streets to decide" on the scope of the demands. The broad options include: toppling the monarchy or allow it to survive in a diminished form with most of its political powers transferred to the elected parliament.

"We are not trying to prevent any alternative," Mushaima told The Associated Press. "It's up the streets."

Mushaima, who leads a group known as Haq, was among 25 Shiite activists charged with trying to topple the Sunni leadership. The case has been dropped, but the sectarian rifts remain a prominent feature of the unrest.

Bahrain's majority Shiites _ about 70 percent of the population _ have long complained of discrimination and pro-Sunni policies that include granting citizenship and jobs to Sunnis from other Arab countries and South Asia.

"Our demands will be what the street demands," said Mushaima. "We can't impose any demands on the street _ not me or any leader of the opposition. It's the people protesting on the streets who will unite with demands."

Increasingly, demonstrators have chanted slogans calling for the downfall of the Sunni monarchy, which is closely backed by neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Gulf Arab leaders have issued strong pledges of support to Bahrain's embattled king, fearing that any crack in Bahrain's ruling system could embolden other challenges to the family dynasties that hold power through the region. Many Sunnis also worry that political gains by Bahrain's Shiites could open the way for greater influence by Shiite powerhouse Iran.

On Monday, hundreds of Bahraini Shiites protested outside the U.S. Embassy in Manama to appeal for Washington to back their campaign for greater political freedoms.

The embassy said staff met with the protesters and reiterated the Obama administration's commitment to the "partnership with the government and the people of Bahrain."

The opposition supporters claim that Washington is showing less support for the revolt in Bahrain than it did for the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that brought down the countries' presidents.