Bahrain's biggest Shiite bloc will join reconciliation talks with Sunni rulers despite a harsh crackdown on pro-reform protests in the Gulf kingdom, the party's leader said Friday on the eve of the government-led dialogue.
The decision by the group, Al Wefaq, lends important credibility to the U.S.-encouraged talks after more than four months of Shiite-led protests for greater rights and harsh crackdowns. But Wefaq also could bring divisions within Bahrain's Shiite majority as many insist that negotiations are futile until the government frees detainees and halts trials links to the protests.
Washington has strongly pushed for talks between the opposition and the rulers in the strategic island nation, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. The Sunni monarchy has made concessions in advance of the so-called "national dialogue" set to begin Saturday, including sanctioning an international investigation that will include probes into the conduct of security forces.
But the government has not relented on opposition demands to free all detainees and clear others convicted of protest-linked charges, including eight activists sentenced to life in prison last month.
Shiites account for about 70 percent of Bahrain's 525,000 people, but claim they face systematic discrimination such as being blocked from top government and political posts.
The head of Wefaq, Sheik Ali Salman, said delegates from his group will join the talks but will stick to its calls to loosen the Sunni monarchy's grip on power.
"We are heading to the talks, but we will not give up our demand for a government that represents the will of the people," Salman told thousands of supporters during a rally in Diraz, an opposition stronghold northwest of the capital Manama.
At least 32 people have died in the unrest since the protests began in February _ inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East. Hundreds of opposition supporters, activists and others have been taken into custody and many other perceived protest backers have been purged from jobs and universities.
Amid the crackdowns, Wefaq staged a mass resignation of its 18 lawmakers in the 40-member lower house of parliament. It also has strongly denounced the martial law-style rules imposed by Bahrain's rulers in March and lifted June 1 in an apparent effort to encourage talks.
In another overture to Wefaq, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on Wednesday announced the creation of an independent commission to investigate allegations that protesters' rights were violated during the anti-government demonstrations.
Authorities also halted the practice of bringing anti-government protesters to trial at a special tribunal and transferred the cases to civilian courts.
"These are good steps in the right direction," Bahrain's top Shiite cleric, Sheik Isa Qassim said during a Friday sermon in Diraz.
The cleric warned against marginalizing Shiites during the talks and called on the Sunni rulers to strive for "real reform" by talking to all opposition leaders, including those sentenced to prison.
On Thursday, riot police fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse thousands of opposition supporters gathered in Manama, an activist said. A rights campaigner, Nabeel Rajab, said the protesters chanted "Down, down Hamad" _ a reference to the Bahraini monarch.