A Saudi military official said Tuesday that the kingdom plans to pull some units out of the 1,500-strong Gulf force sent to Bahrain to help quell a Shiite-led uprising for greater rights. But an adviser to Bahrain's king said there are no plans for a full withdrawal.
The Saudi military official did not say how many troops would remain behind after the pullout next week, announcing the drawdown in the midst of Bahraini government efforts to open a dialogue with the opposition they crushed a few months ago. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media.
Nabil al-Hammar, an adviser to Bahrain's king, made clear that there were no plans for a full withdrawal of the Gulf reinforcements, which include troops from the United Arab Emirates. He said some of the Saudi-led force that came to the aid of Bahrain's rulers in March will reposition units within the tiny kingdom, but no major withdrawal plans were under way.
At least 31 people have been killed since February when Bahrain's majority Shiites _ inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East _ started a campaign for greater freedoms and an end to the Sunni hold on power.
Now the most powerful Shiite pro-reform bloc, Al Wefaq, is asking supporters whether they are for or against the government-proposed dialogue.
Already, the leaders Al Wefaq have shown which way they are leaning _ questioning how reconciliation efforts, pushed by the U.S., can proceed while authorities still impose rigid security measures and hold trials linked to the reform campaign.
The question of whether to participate in the dialogue beginning Saturday is being debated in town hall-style meetings around the strategic Gulf island nation, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Washington has taken little action against Bahrain's monarchy for the harsh crackdown on protesters. The U.S. had urged King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's regime to meet some opposition demands. It also expressed concern about the severity of the sentences and the use of military-linked security courts against protesters.
The absence of Wefaq would be a severe blow to the credibility of the talks and reinforce the sense that Bahrain is still deeply troubled after more than four months of unrest. Wefaq is the leading political voice for Shiites _ about 70 percent of Bahrain's 525,000 people _ and held 18 seats in the 40-member parliament before a mass resignation to protest violence against demonstrators.
It also would sting Washington, which has publicly backed the talks as the only option to calm tensions in one of its main Gulf military allies. At the same time, the U.S. is under growing pressure to take a harder line against Bahrain's ruling dynasty, which claims that Shiite power Iran has a role in the protests.
Hundreds of Shiite opposition supporters and leaders have been arrested or dismissed from state jobs and universities.
Last week, eight prominent opposition activists were sentenced to life in prison. On Monday, 28 doctors and nurses faced charges of taking part in the protests and spreading "false news" _ which is seen as a reference to talking to foreign media.
On Tuesday, defense lawyers said the 28 doctors and nurses were released from custody, although charges against them were not dropped. At least 20 health professionals, who treated injured protesters during the unrest, remain in prison.
"It's not a good atmosphere," said Ali Salman, the leader of Wefaq, who suggested Bahrain's rulers are seeking dialogue to improve the country's image as safe again for tourism and foreign investors.
"They picked a date, they sent out invitations and they decided on the agenda," Salman said. "We feel that even the result of this dialogue has already been determined. That is a bad sign."