Bahrain opposition urges government to take steps toward talks

MANAMA Sun Mar 20, 2011 8:33pm GMT

1 of 20. A man shouts anti-government slogans during the funeral of Isa Abdul Ali Radhi in Sitra March 20, 2011. Isa, 47, died of wounds sustained in clashes with security forces in Sitra on Wednesday.

Credit: Reuters/James Lawler Duggan

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MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain's main opposition groups said on Sunday they would not enter talks unless the government pulled troops off the streets and freed prisoners, and insisted they stood by earlier demands for political reform.

Led by the largest Shi'ite party Wefaq, the groups said they stood by the ambitious conditions they had set for talks last month, including the creation of a government not dominated by members of the Sunni royal family and the establishment of an elected council to redraft the constitution.

But Wednesday's crackdown on weeks of protests by mostly Shi'ite Muslim demonstrators has set back dialogue efforts, forcing opposition leaders to focus on overcoming the gamut of new obstacles brought on by the imposition of martial law.

"Bahrain needs a new agreement between all the people and the government... This system is broken and failed. We need a new system and a new constitution," Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman told a news conference.

"Today we say to the government you took the wrong decision when you let the army come into the streets... We tried our best to solve our problems inside Bahrain. We don't want the Iranians to come. We don't want big problems in this small country."

The ferocity of the crackdown, which banned all public gatherings and called in forces from Bahrain's fellow Sunni-ruled neighbors, has stunned Bahrain's majority Shi'ites and angered the region's non-Arab Shi'ite power, Iran.

More than 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shi'ites, and most are campaigning for a constitutional monarchy, but calls by hardliners for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed Sunnis, who fear the unrest serves Iran, separated from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain by only a short stretch of Gulf waters.

The opposition statement comes after Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said on Friday that the government was still committed to talks and blamed the opposition for rejecting the efforts of the crown prince.

Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa offered talks last month, which opposition groups set conditions for, and, the day before Saudi troops arrived, he promised any talks would address key opposition demands including constitutional and electoral reforms. Opposition groups rejected the offer.

They said they remained committed to the principle of dialogue and were open to foreign mediation but there had been no contact with the crown prince since Wednesday's crackdown.

"As political parties, we will not back down under threat and we will not come to talks with guns pointed to our heads," said Mattar Ibrahim Mattar, a former Wefaq representative, before the bloc withdrew from parliament a few weeks ago.

TENSIONS WITH IRAN

Iran, which supports Shi'ite groups in Iraq and Lebanon, has complained to the United Nations and asked neighbors to join it in urging Saudi Arabia to withdraw forces from Bahrain.

In a sign of rising tensions between the two countries, Bahrain expelled Iran's charge d'affairs for having contacts with some groups, a diplomatic source told Reuters on Sunday. He left shortly after the Iranian ambassador, who was asked to leave last week. Iran expelled a Bahraini diplomat in response.

Sheikh Ali said Wefaq did not have any special ties with the Iranian embassy: "We probably have better relations with the British and U.S. embassies. Will they expel them too?"

Bahrain also complained to Arabsat on Sunday over "abuse and incitement" on Iran's Arabic-language Al Alam television, Hezbollah's Al-Manar and Shi'ite channel Ahlulbayt, which are all carried by the broadcaster, state news agency BNA said.

Bahrain's political crisis has been the subject of a media war between pro-Iranian channels and Bahraini state television. Both have spun events and accused each other of incitement.

Bahrain also condemned a protest outside the Saudi consulate in Tehran, after reports on Saturday that some 700 demonstrators broke windows and raised a Bahraini flag over the gate.

PROTESTER MOURNED

Sunday was the first working day after a week that saw closures of schools and universities to prevent outbreaks of sectarian clashes that had been erupting almost daily.

An uneasy calm spread through the city as most Bahrainis went back to work and there were fewer checkpoints in the streets, though helicopters buzzed over Shi'ite areas.

Over 2,000 mourners in the Shi'ite village of Sitra, pumping their fists and shouting "Down with the regime" joined the third funeral procession in as many days on Sunday. Issa Radhi, 47, was one of four protesters killed in last week's crackdown.

He went missing after a protest in Sitra on Wednesday and police called his family on Saturday to say they found his body. His brother said he was badly beaten and shot in the legs.

"We bury him today but we won't bury the right to avenge his death," his brother Khalil Radhi said.

Hours after Radhi's funeral, Wefaq said a 38-year-old father-of-three who went missing on Saturday was dead. His body had been found but his car was missing. It said police told Abdulrusul Hajair's family to collect his body from hospital.

A former Wefaq parliamentarian said some 100 people had gone missing in the crackdown, speaking at a small 15-minute protest in front of the United Nations building in Manama.

"We don't know anything about them, we've asked hospital and ministry authorities and none of them are telling us anything about them," said Hadi al-Moussawi, one of around 21 former Wefaq MPs carrying Bahraini flags and calling on the UN to help ensure rescue medical services were working in Bahrain.

(Additional reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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