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Thu 10 Mar 2011 12:16 PM

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Bahrain politicians seek to calm sectarian tensions

Analysts say risks of instability in the kingdom would soar if opposition in Bahrain topples government

Bahrain politicians seek to calm sectarian tensions
KNGDOM PROTESTS Bahraini demonstrators consist mostly of Shiites, who have long complained of discrimination in access to jobs and services. (Getty Images)

Bahrain's Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim politicians have met to try to calm sectarian tensions that have escalated into street fights after weeks of protests aimed at bringing down the government.

The majority of Bahrainis are Shi'ites but the island, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, is ruled by the US-backed Al Khalifa family, who are Sunnis.

"The two sides agreed that political disagreements... must not turn into a sectarian dispute," they said in a statement published in Bahrain's independent Al Wasat newspaper.

"[They agreed] to establish a mechanism for direct contact between the two sides to face any violations that might happen at street level and resolve them immediately."

No stranger to sporadic protests and rioting, Bahrain has been gripped by the worst unrest since the 1990s after a youth movement took to the streets last month, emboldened by revolutions that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.

Demonstrators consist mostly of Shi'ites, who have long complained of discrimination in access to jobs and services, while most Sunnis remain wary of an escalation in demands.

Keen to stress that their demands are purely political, protesters camped at Pearl roundabout insist on unity between Sunni and Shi'ite Bahrainis, both in their slogans and on the placards that decorate their tents.

But an altercation between a Sunni motorist and Shi'ite protesters who had blocked a main road escalated this week into a sectarian scuffle. Dozens of vigilantes have been gathering outside the motorist's house in Basaiteen to protect her from any revenge attacks, raising tensions on the streets.

The incident follows sectarian clashes last week in Hamad Town, an area where both Sunnis and Shi'ites live. Residents said it was not clear what sparked that row, but it appeared to involve naturalised Syrians and Shi'ites.

The opposition parties who have been meeting to discuss political demands include the largest Shi'ite opposition group Wefaq, which won eighteen parliament seats in the last elections.

The group also includes the National Unity Gathering led by Abdel Latif Mahmood, a Sunni politician who has called for more rights for all Bahrainis including the Sunni community.

The outcome in Bahrain is being closely watched in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, where Shi'ites make up about fifteen percent of the population and which has seen small protests.

Analysts say risks of instability there would soar if the opposition in Bahrain toppled the government, or even the Al Khalifa family, as some hardline protesters now seek to do.

Highlighting growing fears that Bahrain's political crisis could turn into a sectarian stand-off, a group of about 25 Sunni scholars and preachers loyal to the government also warned against sectarianism and religious extremism.

"Bahraini people, whatever their religious or intellectual affiliations may be, have always been known for their cohesion and tolerance," they said in a statement issued on the official Bahrain News Agency on Wednesday.

They also discussed the possibility of launching a campaign, led by the Sunni religious endowments and the Education Ministry, to raise awareness about the dangers of sectarianism and address the growing polarisation between the two sects.