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Bahrain opposition moderates demands

Posted by on March 28, 2011 1 Comment

Bahrain’s main opposition party has moderated its demands as it seeks to open a dialogue with the government in an effort to end the political crisis engulfing the kingdom.

The climbdown comes less than two weeks after the government launched a crackdown on largely Shia pro-democracy demonstrations that had rocked the country since mid-February.

Members of the opposition say they have dropped previous preconditions to dialogue, which included the resignation of the cabinet and a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution.

The government, which has called for a national dialogue, has yet to respond to the initiative, which has come as the result of contacts between the Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti emir, and the opposition.

Officials declined to comment on the potential external mediation but have previously said dialogue remains possible if there is “stability and security”.

Joe Biden, the US vice-president, on Sunday spoke to Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s Crown Prince, and both agreed that “only a political solution would give Bahrain long-term stability”.

The opposition says the Kuwaiti side has agreed to act as a neutral interlocutor, but details of the mediation are still unknown.

People close to the government say some hardline state elements are in no mood for talks.

Despite $10bn in economic support for Bahrain pledged by its neighbouring Gulf Arab states, opposition members say only a political solution can ensure the stability needed to revive the country’s status as a banking and tourism hub.

Kuwait, which has a large Shia minority, has a more democratic system than its neighbours in the oil-rich Gulf. Sheikh Sabah has also helped mediate regional disputes, most recently engaging in shuttle diplomacy to reduce tensions between Oman and the United Arab Emirates after Muscat accused its neighbour of spying on the sultanate.

“The dialogue will only be on solid ground if we can solve issues such as detainees and checkpoints,” said Jawad Fairooz, a member of al-Wefaq.
The March 16 crackdown on the Pearl roundabout and ongoing security lockdown has pushed protests into Shia villages outside the capital.

A delegation from the Kuwaiti emir contacted the opposition as far back as February 17, the day the pro-democracy movement on the Pearl roundabout was violently cleared.

The crown prince then attempted to launch a dialogue, but opposition groups pushed for concessions before the talks started. He made a final offer of a framework for talks, including more powers for parliament and investigations into corruption, but the opposition held out for constitutional change.

At the same time, opposition hardliners pushed the protests out of Pearl roundabout into the heart of Manama’s financial district, prompting the government to call in troops from neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the UAE ahead of a crackdown on protesters.

Effective martial law has since been imposed, with security forces moving into Shia villages on a daily basis, firing teargas and shotguns.

On Sunday, the army moved into Karzakan, a restive Shia village that has remained a fortress of protest. Barricades including telegraph poles and burnt cars hampered security forces’ access to the village.

Armoured personnel carriers used diggers to remove the barricades as masked soldiers patrolled the back streets.

Over the past few days, sporadic clashes broke out in the village, as well as in neighbouring Al-Malkiya and Dumestan, as demonstrators marched almost daily to voice their calls for change, in direct contravention of the military ban on protests.

Residents said police have entered the villages at day and night, firing at demonstrators and arresting some youths. Agencies

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