MANAMA: Bahrain’s opposition leaders gathered Sunday to examine offers for talks by Bahrain’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 toward 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 seesaw 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 Feb. 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.
Bahrain 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 percent of Bahrain’s 525,000 citizens.
No violence was reported Sunday, but many parts of the country were paralyzed by a general strike called by opposition groups and workers’ unions.
At state-run Gulf Air, union leaders urged workers to join the strike. But an e-mail to employees by the airline’s director warned that any no-shows could face dismissal. The carrier said no flights have been disrupted.
At the Sanabis Intermediate Girls School, however, about 10 women teachers sat outside the empty school yard in a sign of support for the strike.
"We are on strike to support our fellow people in the square," said Samira Ali, 40, a science teacher. "We feel emboldened with our cause after blood was spilled. I want a real constitutional monarchy where my voice is heard and my message reaches to the government."
Samira Salman, a 48-year-old Arabic teacher, carried a sign reading: "You can take my life, but you can’t take my freedom." She wore a Bahrain flag as a cape.
"We won’t leave until our demands for the government to resign are met. I want everything to do with the system to fall. Our blood was on the street and I feel more confident about our cause," she said after returning from the protests crowds refilling Pearl Square in central Manama.
Hundreds of protesters spent the night back in the square after the withdrawal Saturday of security forces a day after firing on marchers trying to reach the site, which was the symbolic center of the protest movement inspired by Egyptian demonstrators who refused to leave Cairo’s Tahrir Square until Hosni Mubarak resigned as president.
On Thursday, riot police stormed Pearl Square in a siege that killed five people and sharply escalated the confrontation.
Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, appealed for calm and political dialogue in a brief address on state TV on Saturday.
People circling through the square after it was reoccupied clapped,
whistled and wept. Some wore white sheets symbolizing their readiness for martyrdom, while others carried Bahraini flags, flowers and signs that said "Peaceful."
In another copy of Cairo’s tactics, protesters built barriers around the square, set up a medical tent, a sound system and deployed lookouts to warn of approaching security forces.
President Barack Obama discussed the situation with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, asking him to hold those responsible for the violence accountable. He said in a statement that Bahrain must respect the "universal rights" of its people and embrace "meaningful reform."
In the United Arab Emirates, an important Gulf ally for Bahrain, Foreign Minister Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan urged Bahraini’s opposition groups to accept offer for talks as a way to restore "security and stability."
Additional reporting by Brian Murphy.