DUBAI Bahrain opposition groups demanding a parliamentary democracy in the Gulf Arab state gave a cautious welcome on Tuesday to an invitation from the king to talks aimed at breaking nearly two years of political deadlock.
King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa made the reconciliation gesture late on Monday, authorising the Justice Ministry to invite "political societies and independent members of the political community" to try to revive discussions that ended inconclusively in July 2011.
Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based as a bulwark against Iran, has been in political ferment since protests led by majority Shi'ite Muslims demanding democratic change in the Sunni-led monarchy erupted in early 2011.
Khalil al-Marzouq, a senior official from Bahrain's main opposition group Wefaq, said five opposition associations had met in the island State's capital, Manama, to discuss the invitation.
"The opposition is inclined to participate and to have representatives in this dialogue, hoping that this dialogue will be a serious one," Marzouq, a political assistant to Wefaq Secretary-General Ali Salman, said by telephone on Tuesday.
He said the groups expected to issue an official statement later confirming their stance.
Marzouq added that the opposition, including secular and pan-Arab political associations, wanted dialogue to focus on ways of achieving a constitutional monarchy with an elected government.
"We are now waiting for the invitation to attend this dialogue," Marzouq said.
The ruling Al-Khalifa family used martial law and help from Gulf neighbours to put down the 2011 revolt, but protesters and police still clash on a regular basis. Rights groups have accused the government of continuing to crush dissent.
Shi'ite Muslims complain of discrimination in the electoral system, jobs, housing, education and government departments.
Protesters and opposition parties say they want to end the ruling family's domination by giving parliament full powers to legislate and form governments.
Opposition groups had given a guarded welcome to a similar call for talks from Bahrain's Crown Prince made in December, though it did not lead to any negotiations. An invitation from King Hamad carries extra clout.
Topics for discussion would be agreed later but the aim was to "achieve further consensus around the political agenda," the justice ministry said, without going into further detail.
Information Minister Samira Rajab said the invitation was issued to all Bahraini political groups.
"We are waiting to see which side refuses the invitation to sit at the table of dialogue... We are keen to reach a final and comprehensive national consensus," Rajab was quoted as saying by state news agency BNA.
Former Bahraini parliament member Matar Ebrahim Matar said Rajab's reference to a possible refusal of dialogue suggested the government was not sincere in seeking discussions.
"We want a roadmap to move Bahrain from where it is now to a constitutional monarchy with an elected government," Matar said by telephone from the United States, where he was on a visit.
Talks on finding a way out of the crisis were held in July 2011, but ended inconclusively after Wefaq pulled out, complaining it had not been allowed enough representation at the negotiations.
(Editing by William Maclean and Tom Pfeiffer)