Bahrain opposition drops pre-conditions for talks

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 18, 2011 3:54 PM

MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahraini opposition groups said on Thursday they were now ready to enter into talks with the government without pre-conditions, but have sent a letter to the crown prince saying they want a new government and constitution.

The opposition groups, formed mainly of disgruntled majority Shi'ite Muslims, have led large protests in the island kingdom since last month, but had previously demanded a commitment by the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family to democratic reforms before entering talks.

The U.S.-allied Sunni government has made some concessions after ordering troops off the streets under international pressure, but a formal political dialogue has not yet started.

Six political groups led by the main Shi'ite opposition group Wefaq want the resignation of the cabinet, a new constitution under which the government is elected and an investigation into the actions of the security forces.

They also seek guarantees that peaceful protests can continue and want state media give them more coverage.

"We would like to see a declaration at the beginning of the talks stating that in principle they agree to abolishing the 2002 constitution and ... to having a parliament fully by the people," Ibrahim Shareef of the secular Waad group told a news conference in Manama.

Thousands of protesters who have been camped out in Manama's Pearl Square want an end to al-Khalifa family rule altogether.

This week they have staged peaceful marches toward government buildings around the capital such as the ministry of interior and the financial center where banks are located.

Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, is part of a string of Sunni Gulf allies of the United States that counter the regional influence of Shi'ite power Iran.

Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad has been charged by the king with entering into dialogue on reforms.

Government supporters have also taken to the streets. Late on Wednesday tens of thousands gathered at a mosque in Manama to show their support for King Hamad bin Isa.

They say that political reforms launched by the king a decade ago have resulted in freedoms and a level of democracy unique in the Gulf Arab region.

Faisal Fulad from the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society, who attended the pro-government gathering, said Sunni groups want to be part of any political dialogue as well. "The red line for them is the royal family," he said.

(Reporting by Frederik Richter; Editing by Jon Hemming)