Worried Bahrainis seek talks as clashes worsen

Ministers seek reconciliation as violence worsens in run-up to one-year anniversary of uprising
Worried Bahrainis seek talks as clashes worsen
Bahraini riot police stand guard as Shiite Muslim mourners take part in a funeral
By Reuters
Thu 02 Feb 2012 08:24 AM

Bahraini independents worried that the island will slide
into sectarian violence have begun an effort to break the political stalemate
between pro-government and opposition forces.

Ali Fakhro, a former minister and ambassador respected
across the political spectrum, told Reuters that he hoped to get moderates from
both sides together at a time when extremists are making themselves felt throughout
the Gulf Arab state.

Bahrain's Sunni Muslim rulers crushed a pro-democracy
uprising last year that was dominated by members of the majority Shi'ite
community. But unrest has continued since then with daily clashes between riot
police
and Shi'ite protesters.

The violence has worsened in recent weeks as the Feb 14
anniversary of the protest movement approaches. Thirty-five people had died by
the time martial law was lifted in June, but the figure has risen to over 60
since then, activists say.

The interior ministry says it wants legislation to stop
attacks on police who dodge petrol bombs and iron bars, while protesters say
abuse of detainees is returning as police drown villages in teargas and chase
them down alleys in fast cars.

"There are extremists all over Bahrain but we hope the
moderates will say 'why not meet and try to get Bahrain out of this'. There is
no harm from meeting, even if they disagree," Fakhro said in an interview
on Wednesday.

He decried the split between Bahrainis in Sunni areas such
as Muharraq and Shi'ite centres such as Manama.

"People in Muharraq are in their trenches and those in
Manama are in their trenches, like it was a war, and it's ridiculous," he
said.

Fakhro said the initiative, launched at a meeting last week,
involved persuading opposition parties and pro-government groups meeting
outside a government forum and agreeing on a list of basic demands for
democratic reform.

He launched the plan at a meeting of prominent Bahrainis
with no official political affiliations or memberships last Saturday, called
the National Bahraini Meeting. Delegations are putting out feelers to each side
this week.

The idea was to avoid the problems of government attempts at
dialogue, he said, by having the political groups agree first among themselves
before taking whatever they agree upon to a senior figure in the ruling Al Khalifa
family.

A basic framework for discussion would be seven points for
democratic reform announced by Crown Prince Salman shortly before the
government brought in Saudi troops and imposed martial law to end the street
protests in March.

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The crown prince's initiative was subsequently tossed aside
as hardliners within the family, which dominates senior government posts, won
out, analysts and diplomats say.

"[We] posed a question: what is the main problem now?
It was felt that society itself has not agreed on a political agenda for
reforms whereby at least there is a minimal agreement on an agenda,"
Fakhro said.

"This is needed immediately to get Bahrain out of its
present tragic situation - to stop young people continuing their daily
activities and assure Shi'ites and Sunnis that there will be a new horizon
which is fair and just to everybody."

A government "national dialogue" last July
produced limited reforms giving parliament some powers of oversight over
ministers but fell short of demands that include reducing the power of the
appointed upper chamber, removing the prime minister in power for over 40 years
and allowing elected government.

Such reforms would be a major shift for the Gulf region,
where Kuwait has a parliament with legislative powers that does not form
cabinets but Saudi Arabia has only municipal elections.

Some Sunni Bahrainis fear that political reforms would
empower the Shi'ite majority to their detriment and believe that Shi'ite power
Iran would gain influence. In recent weeks, pro-government groups in plainclothes
have attacked some Shi'ites.

Gulf states also fear Iran would benefit from democracy in
Bahrain - a U.S. ally that hosts Washington's Fifth Fleet - and raise pressure
for more democracy on their own patch.

The opposition parties are dominated by Shi'ite groups such
as Wefaq, though the secular Waad party is led by a Sunni who is among 14
jailed protest leaders. The pro-government parties are led mainly by Sunni
Islamists.

A source at Wefaq said the group welcomed the initiative but
doubted a breakthrough would be possible as tensions mount before the Feb. 14
anniversary.

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