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Sat 26 Nov 2011 10:16 AM

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Bahrain poised to start talks on political reforms

Foreign minister says discussions will also focus on overhauling security policies

Bahrain poised to start talks on political reforms
A flashback to the Bahrain uprisings in March

Bahrain will start new talks on political reforms and overhaul its security policies, the country's foreign minister has said.

Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa was talking after an inquiry into the unrest and the government crackdown to quell the protests came out with a hardhitting report this week that described systematic torture of detainees.

He still blamed Iran for fomenting civil unrest when protesters inspired by Arab Spring uprisings took to the streets this year.

He said a national commission called for by the inquiry, headed by international rights lawyer Cherif Bassiouni, to promote reconciliation would go beyond some reforms that emerged from a controversial national dialogue in June.

He said that the main opposition party Wefaq, which commands support among majority Shi'ites, would need to be involved but it should distance itself from daily clashes between riot police and Shi'ite protesters in villages which the government says are empty vandalism that hurt the economy.

"For them to be present we should make sure that all important issues are on the table," the minister, a former ambassador to London, said.

"Everybody concerned should be in it, and we are taking that as an important step forward. We ask everybody not to keep themselves out of these talks. Keeping yourself out means we won't be able to discuss all the demands."

The ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family dominates Bahrain's government. King Hamad's uncle Khalifa bin Salman is the world's longest serving prime minister and the elected lower chamber of parliament does not form cabinets or have full legislative powers.

Shi'ites complain of discrimination in jobs, housing, education and some government departments including the security forces and army.

Bahrain's government has said it is addressing the concerns.

But opening up to Wefaq has been sticking point, with signs of dispute between hardliners and moderates over whether to talk to them.

Bassiouni's report dismissed government allegations that the protests were instigated by Iran or that Tehran was planning a military intervention.

But the minister said it was still legitimate to talk of Iranian interference in Bahraini affairs. King Hamad pointed to media incitement in his response to Bassiouni at a ceremony unveiling the inquiry's findings on Wednesday.

"(There were) public statements by Iranian government officials and media officials calling for insurrection, calling for overthrow of the government," he said.

The government said after martial law was imposed in March that it would close down Wefaq. But it appeared to backtrack within hours when the foreign minister said that would not be the case after public criticism from the United States.

The US Congress has linked approving a large US arms deal to Bahrain to the government's response to the report, putting pressure in Manama to take reform steps.

"We will, as their important ally, act very responsibly in the aftermath of the report, so we are not worried about that, we are looking forward," Sheikh Khalid said.

The minister said the government would need to institute a security overhaul following the report which detailed torture and made for harrowing reading.

"I was shocked at a lot of the content that I did not think or wish would happen to my country," he said, describing the testimonies as "very sad".

"It's not only going to be a review, it will be a overhaul of the security side of Bahrain... We need technical help here and the security part needs a lot of help."

Opposition groups and rights activists have called for dismissals at senior levels over the crackdown, which involved the army, state security agency and interior ministry.

"His Majesty said whoever has been proven to have committed something will be held accountable and will be replaced... It's very clear," Sheikh Khalid said.

But he defended police tactics in ongoing confrontations with protesters in Shi'ite villages, saying police were under attack and only sought to restore law and order.

"The police are under attack themselves. There are roads being blocked with trashbins, planks of wood, metal, stones. It's kids attacking police with stones - stones can kill people - and not only stones but Molotov cocktails," he said.

He said Wefaq needed to condemn the street disturbances. "Once we see them calling on people for restraint and calling people not to block streets... then we will know they are taking responsible steps in restoring law and order," the minister said.

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