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Wed 28 Sep 2011 10:08 AM

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Sheikh Khalifa must stay, says top Bahrain cleric

Calls to remove the prime minister are red line for Sunnis, says Jassim al-Saeedi

Sheikh Khalifa must stay, says top Bahrain cleric
Bahrain saw weeks of political protests in February and March

A leading Sunni Muslim cleric in Bahrain said on Tuesday that calls to remove the long-serving prime minister, a key demand of majority Shi'ites, were a red line for Sunnis in the Gulf Arab state, which faces rising sectarian tension.

Jassim al-Saeedi, a prayer leader and member of parliament in the Sunni stronghold of Riffa, said Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa should continue in a post he has occupied since Bahrain became independent in 1971.

"The prime minister is a red line for us. We can only be satisfied with this man who gave his life in the service of Bahrain," he said, adding that more than two thirds of Bahrainis want Sheikh Khalifa to stay in his post.

"The people are still chanting their love for Khalifa bin Salman since he is the giving symbol of this small state."

Bahrain's ruling Al-Khalifa family, which dominates government, crushed a pro-democracy protest movement earlier this year after talks between mainly Shi'ites opposition parties and the government failed to agree on reforms.

Street protesters and opposition parties wanted a new cabinet as well as parliamentary reforms that would give the elected house real legislative powers.

The prime minister, thought to have extensive business interests, is a reviled figure among many Shi'ites but Sunnis look to him as a hawk who will safeguard their interests.

A giant placard of Sheikh Khalifa bears down on a main highway in Riffa, praising him as "the glory of the nation" and declaring "long live the Arab Bahrain of Khalifa."

Saeedi, a colourful figure known for his puritan Salafi views, declined to say if Sunnis would accept concessions on parliament.

A national dialogue, set up by King Hamad bin Isa after martial law was used to end the protests and punish those who took part, proposed giving Bahrain's assembly more monitoring powers over ministers.

But street clashes between police and Shi'ites are continuing almost daily in many neighbourhoods of the island state, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Analysts say the violence could increase if the political stalemate continues.

The conflict has hit Bahrain's tourism and banking industry and created social and political division along stark sectarian lines.

Saeedi expressed the view of many Sunnis that Shi'ite opposition groups, led by Wefaq, were plotting with Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah to create an Islamic state. Wefaq denies these charges.

He said he was confident the king, Sheikh Khalifa's nephew, would not institute further reforms despite calls from Washington for the government to enter talks with Wefaq.

"I don’t think the leadership will take on such a role because they are aware that this society is diverse," he said. "All talks must take place within the context of parliament."

Bahrain held by-elections last week for 18 seats vacated when Wefaq members resigned over protester deaths in February. A Wefaq boycott reduced the turnout to only 17 percent, confirming the group's strength among Shi'ites.

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Suleyman 8 years ago

"The prime minister, thought to have extensive business interests,..."
Yes, that's one way of putting it.