Bahrain's main opposition groups ease demands

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 12:05 PM
Bahrain's main opposition groups ease demands

By Lin Noueihed and Rania El Gamal

MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain's main opposition groups have eased conditions for talks to end a crisis that has drawn in neighboring Gulf armies and raised tensions in the oil-exporting region.

Led by the largest Shi'ite opposition party Wefaq, they called late on Saturday on security forces to free all those detained in the wake of a month of protests, end their crackdown and ask Gulf Arab troops to leave so talks could begin.

"Prepare a healthy atmosphere for the start of political dialogue between the opposition and the government on a basis that can put our country on the track to real democracy and away from the abyss," their statement said.

The group appeared to retreat from much more ambitious conditions for talks it set last week, including the creation of a new government not dominated by royals and the establishment of a special elected council to redraft Bahrain's constitution.

The new conditions, which also include ending sectarian rhetoric and removing forces who have surrounded a major hospital in recent days, would bring the political process back to the position it was in before the uprising began a month ago.

Bahrain security forces moved on Wednesday to end weeks of protests by mainly Shi'ite demonstrators that prompted the king to declare martial law and drew in troops from fellow Sunni-ruled neighbors.

The ferocity of the crackdown, in which troops and police fanned out across Bahrain, imposed a curfew and banned all public gatherings and marches, has stunned Bahrain's majority Shi'ites and angered the region's non-Arab Shi'ite power, Iran.

"As political parties, we will not back down under threat and we will not come to talks with guns pointed to our heads," said Mattar Ibrahim Mattar, a former Wefaq representative, before the bloc withdrew from parliament a few weeks ago.

More than 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shi'ites. Most are campaigning for a constitutional monarchy, but calls by hardliners for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed Sunnis, who fear the unrest serves Iran, separated from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain by only a short stretch of Gulf waters.

Iran, which supports Shi'ite groups in Iraq and Lebanon, complained to the United Nations and asked neighbors to join it in urging Saudi Arabia to withdraw forces from Bahrain.

Bahrain condemned an Iranian protest outside the Saudi diplomatic mission in Tehran, its state news agency said, after reports that some 700 Iranian demonstrators broke windows at the consulate and raised a Bahraini flag over the building's gate.

BACK TO WORK

Sunday was the first working day after a week that saw closures of schools and universities to prevent outbreaks of sectarian clashes that had been erupting almost daily.

An uneasy calm spread through the city as most Bahrainis went back to work and there were fewer checkpoints in the streets, though helicopters buzzed over Shi'ite areas.

Over 2,000 mourners in the Shi'ite village of Sitra, pumping their fists and shouting "Down with the regime" joined the third funeral procession in as many days on Sunday. Issa Radhi, 47, was one of four protesters killed in last week's crackdown.

His family said he went missing after a protest in Sitra and police called them on Saturday to say his body had been found. His brother said he was badly beaten, with birdshot in his legs.

"We bury him today but we won't bury the right to avenge his death," his brother Khalil Radhi said.

A former Wefaq parliamentarian said some 100 people had gone missing in the crackdown, speaking at a small 15-minute protest in front of the United Nations building in Manama.

"We don't know anything about them, we've asked hospital and ministry authorities and none of them are telling us anything about them," Hady al-Mussawy said, one of around 21 former Wefaq MPs carrying Bahraini flags and calling on the UN to help ensure rescue medical services were working in Bahrain.

Bahrain's military rulers tried to bring life back to normal, shortening the 12-hour curfew that had been imposed on large areas of Manama. The curfew now runs from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. from the Seef Mall area in Manama, through the Pearl roundabout and the financial district to the diplomatic area.

Bahrain urged employees working in the public sector and both public and private schools and universities to return to work after days of closures and shortened hours.

State television aimed to show viewers the island kingdom had returned to normalcy, airing soap operas and montages of expatriates expressing relief at the regained sense of security.

But mourners in Sitra, with many claiming they were on strike, struck a tone of defiance.

"Of course we will continue (protesting)," said Ahmed Hussein, 25, Ridhi's nephew, "Either victory or martyrdom."

(Additional reporting by Frederik Richter and Erika Solomon; editing by Andrew Roche)