Bahrainis start first reconciliation talks since 2011

Sun Feb 10, 2013 1:18pm EST
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By Angus McDowall

MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain's government and opposition held reconciliation talks on Sunday for the first time since July 2011 to try to end two years of political deadlock in the strategically vital Gulf Arab island kingdom.

Home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, the tiny state has been hit by unrest since mass pro-democracy protests in early 2011, becoming a front line in a region-wide tussle for influence between Shi'ite Muslim Iran and Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia.

The mass disturbances were crushed but demonstrators drawn mainly from Bahrain's Shi'ite majority have continued small protests on an almost daily basis demanding the Sunni ruling family call elections and create a constitutional monarchy.

While opposition members have expressed very cautious optimism that the talks represent a meaningful step forward, they have also voiced concerns that the agenda remains unclear.

Before Sunday's gathering, which broke up after more than three hours, Khalil Ibrahim, a senior official of the main opposition Wefaq movement, said Wefaq would decide on Monday whether to continue with the dialogue.

Wefaq has commanded nearly half the electorate in past parliamentary votes but the government has refused to budge on opposition demands to give the elected chamber of parliament the power to form cabinets.

Opposition negotiator Abdulnabi Salman, from the Democratic Progressive Tribune group, told reporters after the session: "So far so good, and we will continue for the next session, but there is no guarantee that we will continue forever."

He said the gathering had not yet set an agenda and opposition groups would discuss the way forward on Monday.   Continued...

A protester holds a banner saying "I Love Bahrain" as she participates in a rally organised by Bahrain's main oppostion society Al Wefaq, in Budaiya, west of Manama, February 9, 2013. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed