MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain's Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim opposition groups have met to try to curb sectarian tensions that have escalated into street fights after weeks of protests aimed at bringing down the government.
The majority of Bahrainis are Shi'ites but the island, home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, is ruled by the U.S.-backed al-Khalifa family, who are Sunnis.
"The two sides agreed that political disagreements... must not turn into a sectarian dispute," the seven parties said in a statement.
"(They agreed) to establish a mechanism for direct contact between the two sides to face any violations that might happen at street level and resolve them immediately," said the statement, published in Bahrain's independent Al Wasat newspaper.
No stranger to sporadic protests and rioting, Bahrain has been gripped by the worst unrest since the 1990s after a youth movement took to the streets last month, emboldened by revolutions that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.
Demonstrators camped at Pearl roundabout insist on unity between Sunni and Shi'ite Bahrainis, both in the protest slogans and on the placards that decorate their tents.
But an altercation between a Sunni motorist and Shi'ite protesters who had blocked a main road escalated this week into a sectarian scuffle. The incident follows sectarian clashes in Hamad Town last week, an area where both Sunnis and Shi'ites live. Residents said it was not clear what sparked that row.
The opposition parties who have been meeting to discuss political demands include the largest Shi'ite opposition group Wefaq, which won 18 parliament seats in the last elections.
The groups called on Bahrainis to turn to the security forces to resolve any disputes rather than taking matters into their own hands.
The group also includes the National Unity Gathering led by Abdel Latif Mahmood, a Sunni politician who has called for more rights for all Bahrainis including the Sunni community.
Wefaq has called for the resignation of the government and seeks a constitutional monarchy that cedes more power to the people.
Its deputies quit after the protests began but the bloc has not joined a new coalition of more hardline Shi'ite groups calling for the overthrow of the monarchy.
Those smaller groups, Al Haq, the Freedom movement and Wafa, have not entered into dialogue with Sunni political gatherings. (Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)