Bahrain cleric raises fresh doubts about talks

Bahrain's top Shiite cleric denounced the Gulf kingdom's rulers for "damaging the country" and warned Friday that tension-easing dialogue cannot take place until authorities halt crackdowns used to crush protests demanding greater political rights.

The sermon by Sheik Isa Qassim is the latest signal that Shiite leaders could snub appeals by Bahrain's Sunni rulers for talks next month with opposition figures and others who began pro-reform demonstrations in February and then faced a withering backlash from security forces.

Shiites comprise about 70 percent of the population in the strategic nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. But Shiites claim widespread discrimination at the hands of the Western-backed Sunni monarchy.

"The reactions of the security forces result in damaging the country, but the people are patient and peaceful," Sheik Qassim told worshippers in a mostly Shiite area outside the capital Manama.

Bahrain's ruling dynasty has proposed opening talks with opposition delegates July 1, but the outreach has met a cool reception from Shiite leaders demanding that authorities roll back security measures and halt trials against activists and others on anti-state charges. At least 31 people have died in the unrest and hundreds have been detained.

In addition, the monarchy has been reinforced by a Saudi-led military force since March.

"We demand meaningful and real reforms that guarantee the rights of people," said Sheik Qassim. "There is no reform when our people are in jail, dismissed from jobs, religious ceremonies attacked and media sponsored by the state are spreading lies and misinformation."

He added: "We have offered so many sacrifices and cannot back down and end up empty handed."

Earlier this week on a visit to Bahrain, the State Department's top rights official, Michael Posner, urged for talks but also expressed concern about reports of abuses against detainees accused of links to the protests.

Washington also added Bahrain to a list of alleged human rights offenders that includes Iran, North Korea and Syria.