Bahrain opposition plots strategy before talks
MANAMA, Bahrain – Bahrain's opposition wants the nation's rulers to guarantee they will back up their conciliatory words with actions, a Shiite leader said Sunday as he and other activists weighed the regime's offer for talks after nearly a week of protests and deadly clashes that have divided the Gulf nation.
The streets in the tiny but strategically important island kingdom were calmer as efforts shifted toward political haggling over demands the monarchy give up its near-absolute control over key policies and positions.
But bitterness and tensions still run deep after seesaw battles that saw riot police opening fire on protesters trying to reclaim landmark Pearl Square and then pulling back to allow them to occupy it. At least seven people have been killed and hundreds injured since the Arab wave for change reached the Gulf last Monday. The protesters were preparing to spend another night in the square by late Sunday.
Bahrain holds particular importance to Washington as the host of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which is the main U.S. military counterweight to Iran's efforts to expand its armed forces and reach into the Gulf. Bahrain's ruling Sunni dynasty has strong backing from other Gulf Arab leaders, who fear that Shiite powerhouse Iran could gain further footholds through the uprising led by Bahrain's Shiite majority. The Shiite majority has often complains of discrimination by the Sunni rulers.
Bahrain's rulers appear desperate to open a political dialogue after sharp criticism from Western allies and statements by overseers of next month's Formula One race that the unrest could force the cancellation of Bahrain's premier international event.
But opposition leaders appear to be in no hurry to talk.
"Yesterday you kill people and today you want them to sit with you. It's not that easy," said a leader of the main Shiite opposition group Al Wefaq, Abdul-Jalil Khalil. He said no talks have taken place yet.
Khalil said the opposition's main demand is for the resignation of the government that is responsible for this week's bloodshed and has been led by the same prime minister — the king's uncle — for 40 years.
Other demands include abolishing the monarchy's privileges to set policies and appoint all key political posts, along with addressing long-standing claims of discrimination and abuses against Shiites, who represent about 70 percent of Bahrain's 525,000 citizens.
"We are not refusing a dialogue with the crown prince, but we need guarantees they will back words with action," Khalil said.
To underline how eager the royal family is to appease the youthful demonstrators Bahrain state TV broadcast a talk show with three young protesters voicing their grievances.
One of the men, a Shiite, was choking back tears when he said the protesters have a message that needs to be heard in a civilized manner and called on the Sunni rulers to close the sectarian divide.
No violence was reported Sunday, but many parts of the country were paralyzed by a general strike that was called by the workers' unions — and suspended by day's end.
"The strike has been suspended and not called off because our preliminary demands of removing the tanks and police (off the streets) and allowing us to protest peacefully were fulfilled," Salman Mahfoudh, head of the Workers Trade Union, told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
"There seems to be a real move toward dialogue. If we find that this is reversed or if we are attacked again, we will go back to striking," Mahfoudh said.
Workers at two state-run giants — the Gulf Air and The Bahrain Petroleum Company (BopCo), — were among thousands who did not show up for work on Sunday.
At the Sanabis Intermediate Girls School, about 10 women teachers sat outside the empty school yard in a sign of support for the strike.
"We are on strike to support our fellow people in the square," said Samira Ali, 40, a science teacher. "We feel emboldened with our cause after blood was spilled. I want a real constitutional monarchy where my voice is heard and my message reaches to the government."
Samira Salman, a 48-year-old Arabic teacher, carried a sign reading: "You can take my life, but you can't take my freedom." She wore a Bahrain flag as a cape.
"Our blood was on the street and I feel more confident about our cause," she said after returning from the protests crowds refilling Pearl Square in central Manama.
Mehdi Hasan, an electrical engineer at BopCo said he was on strike getting rights from the government was his "top priority."
"I want the right to choose and elect those I want in the government," Hasan said.
Hundreds of marchers prepared to spend a second straight night in the square — now the symbolic center of the protest movement inspired by Egyptian demonstrators who refused to leave Cairo's Tahrir Square until Hosni Mubarak resigned as president.
The protest encampment includes a makeshift clinic and a barber. Food donations were being collected in the center of the square. As night fell, protesters carried blankets to their tents and men gathered in open-air "cafes," sitting in arm chairs and smoking water pipes.
Lawyers wearing suits and ties joined protesters at the Pearl Square and conducted lessons on Bahrain's constitution earlier Sunday.
They called for government officials to be put on trial after security forces opened fire and "inflicted harm on citizens" — a constitutional offense — as people chanted anti-government slogans and demanded the king be held responsible.
Brian Murphy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.