DUBAI Bahrain's government said on Wednesday talks aimed at breaking nearly two years of political deadlock would proceed after opposition groups seeking a parliamentary democracy accepted an invitation from the king.
Bahrain is a key ally of Washington in a stand-off with Iran since it provides a base for the U.S. navy's Fifth Fleet.
The small island state has been in political turmoil since protests led by majority Shi'ite Muslims demanding democratic change in the Sunni-led monarchy erupted in early 2011.
Information Minister Samira Rajab told Reuters on Wednesday that the government would ask all parties to nominate representatives to the talks, which could start soon provided they were "very serious" about dialogue.
"Their statement was positive," Rajab said of the opposition's acceptance of the invitation.
"All the steps will start. I think the timeframe will go fast, as long as all the parties are willing to go through positive, very serious dialogue," she said.
She said the government would moderate the event, help arrange the agenda and implement any recommendations that it produced.
"As far as I understand, the government won't be represented there. They will be the moderators, the regulator," she said without elaborating.
Thirty-five people died during the uprising and over two months of martial law in 2011, but the opposition says that figure has risen to over 80. The government rejects the attribution of many of those deaths to the political conflict.
It accused opposition groups of sabotaging Bahrain's image and being linked to Shi'ite Muslim power Iran. Protesters and opposition parties said they want to end the ruling family's domination by giving parliament full powers to legislate and form governments.
Martial law has since been lifted and Bahrain has introduced some reforms, which the opposition has dismissed as cosmetic and smaller scale protests have continued.
Opposition groups say previous promises of constructive dialogue by the authorities have come to nothing and accuse the government of continuing to crush dissent.
But they welcomed the latest invitation from King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, saying they hoped the gesture was serious.
Khalil al-Marzouq, an official of the main opposition group Wefaq, said he had no details on how the talks would be organised. The government was usually slow in providing information about such matters, he said.
Shi'ite Muslims complain of discrimination in the electoral system, jobs, housing, education and government departments.
Talks in July 2011 ended inconclusively after Wefaq pulled out, complaining it had not been allowed enough representation at the negotiations, and there were too many handpicked participants to reach a meaningful consensus.
(Reporting by Sami Aboudi and William Maclean; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)