Bahrain’s opposition leaders have gathered to examine offers for talks by the country’s rulers after nearly a week of protests and deadly clashes that have sharply divided the strategic Gulf nation.
The streets in the tiny island kingdom were calmer as efforts shifted towards possible political haggling over demands for the monarchy to give up its near-absolute control over key policies and positions.
But bitterness and tensions still run deep after see-saw battles that included riot police opening fire on protesters trying to reclaim a landmark square, and then pulling back to allow them to occupy the site. At least seven people have been killed and hundreds injured since the Arab wave for change reached the Gulf on February 14.
Bahrain’s rulers appear desperate to open a political dialogue after sharp criticism from Western allies and statements by overseers of next month’s Formula One race that the unrest could force the cancellation of Bahrain’s premier international event.
The country holds particular importance to Washington as the host of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which is the main US military counterweight to Iran’s efforts to expand its armed forces and reach into the Gulf.
Bahrain’s ruling Sunni dynasty has strong backing from other Gulf Arab leaders, who fear that Shiite powerhouse Iran could gain further footholds through the uprising led by Bahrain’s Shiite majority.
A leader of the main Shiite political bloc, Abdul-Jalil Khalil, said the opposition is considering the monarchy’s offer for dialogue but he noted that no direct talks were yet under way.
The protest demands include abolishing the monarchy’s privileges to set policies and appoint all key political posts, and address long-standing claims of discrimination and abuses against Shiites, who represents about 70% of Bahrain’s 525,000 citizens.