* Opposition urges peaceful protests before Grand Prix
* Ready to meet F1 chief Ecclestone
* Wefaq expects thousands to join demonstrations
By Yara Bayoumy
MANAMA, April 17 (Reuters) - Bahrain’s main opposition bloc called on Wednesday for stepped up peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations before Sunday’s Formula One race, saying the global spotlight shone on the kingdom by the Grand Prix would help showcase its message of reform.
Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the Shi’ite Muslim-led group al-Wefaq, added in remarks to Reuters that he would be prepared to meet Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone in order to advance his demands for political reform in the island kingdom.
“We are open to meet anybody,” he said.
Ecclestone has said he is willing to meet opposition figures ahead of the race. A group of British politicians has written to Ecclestone urging him to cancel the race, which was reinstated to the calendar last year after being called off in 2011.
Asked if meeting a foreign businessman like Ecclestone could help his campaign, Salman replied: “We speak all the time about reform, human rights and democracy. Anyone can share these concerns. They are a human interest.”
Salman added that he wanted Bahrainis to take advantage of the increased attention brought to Bahrain by the race and step up peaceful protests.
“I am calling for more peaceful protests,” he said. “I am calling on people to share peaceful protests to send a message to the world about our demand for peaceful democratic reform.
“I am against violence. Our protest is to take place today, tomorrow and on Friday. It is not against the race itself.”
Khalil al-Marzouq, a senior Wefaq leader, told Reuters he expected tens of thousands to attend the main demonstration planned for Friday. Other protests would be held on Wednesday and Thursday, and authorities had been informed.
“These demonstrations show that the movement continues and the demands have not been met yet. Obviously, the presence of the media for the Formula One helps shed the spotlight on Bahrain,” he said. “We expect tens of thousands of people on Friday.”
Political instability in Bahrain looks little nearer a solution than a year ago, when street clashes formed an embarrassing backdrop to the race, even if the kingdom can justifiably say it is now addressing its problems with dialogue.
In February the Sunni Muslim-led government and mainly Shi’ite Muslim opposition resumed an effort to negotiate an end to two years of political deadlock and violence in the tiny but strategically vital Gulf Arab island kingdom.
Two months on, as the country prepares to host its biggest sporting event before a global television audience, the atmosphere remains as heavy with mutual recrimination as it was during the 2012 race meeting.
Behind closed doors, the two sides trade blame for the current deadlock in the “National Dialogue”, while out on the streets, police and protesters clash daily amid fears the low-level violence could escalate into more deadly attacks.
The stakes are high. Home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is a front-line in a regional jockeying for influence between Shi’ite Muslim Iran and Sunni heavyweight Saudi Arabia. The kingdom adjoins Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province
Locked in a bitter rivalry with Iran involving sectarian struggles in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and neighbouring Bahrain, Riyadh is a strong supporter of Bahrain’s Sunni ruling family.
Mass protests by Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority were crushed by the Sunni-ruled kingdom in 2011, but protests have continued, demanding the creation of a constitutional monarchy, a demand flatly rejected by the government.
“The dialogue is present, but it is on ice unless the (opposition’s) conditions are met,” Information Minister Samira Rajab told Reuters in Manama last week, accusing the opposition of obstructing the dialogue.
The Shi’ite majority has long complained of entrenched discrimination, and its loyalty has been openly questioned by members of Bahrain’s Sunni ruling family, bound by historical and marriage ties to that of Riyadh.
Salman blamed the government for intransigence.
“... the regime until now, practically, is not positive in the talks, and is not helping the talks to succeed. On the contrary it looks like it’s going in the direction of thwarting the dialogue,” the white-turbanned Wefaq leader said at the party’s headquarters in Bahrain.
The talks restarted in February after the opposition quit them in July 2011, saying they were not carried out fairly.
The opposition blames security forces for excessive force in suppressing protests. The government says the opposition is not vocal in condemning a spate of recent small bomb attacks.
About 35 people died during the 2011 unrest and in the two months of martial law afterwards, according to an independent commission of inquiry, but the opposition says at least 80 died. (Writing by Yara Bayoumy, Editing by William Maclean and Giles Elgood)