MANAMA: The Shia opposition groups in Bahrain seeking to loosen the Sunni monarchy’s grip on power said Thursday they are ready to negotiate with the Gulf nation’s rulers about political change after weeks of protests.
The two-week standoff, in which seven protesters were killed, has rattled one of the wealthiest corners of the Middle East, where it was long assumed that oil riches would stave off the kind of unrest that has roiled Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya.
Bahrain’s sectarian division, however, left it vulnerable. The kingdom has a Shia majority that has been ruled for 200 years by a Sunni dynasty that it accuses of discriminatory policies and political persecution.
Senior opposition leader Abdul Jalil Khalil said the monarchy’s opponents will accept the crown prince’s invitation for dialogue.
"We will talk to the crown prince, but we are not going to sit together for a casual chat, but for a meaningful dialogue only," said Khalil, a leader of Bahrain’s main Shia group Al Wefaq.
Khalil said no date had been set for the beginning of the talks.
Bahrain’s king assigned Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa to lead talks.
The government confirmed that Salman had received the opposition’s demands, in a statement expressing hope that dialogue begins soon despite "substantial differences between the various groups and parties."
"It is precisely for this reason that the dialogue must start so a political settlement can be reached by consensus," the statement also said.
One of the first discussion points will be the opposition’s demand that the current government be replaced in response to the killing of protesters.
"This government has to resign because it has committed illegal acts and violated human rights," said Ali Salman, the leader of the Al Wefaq movement. "We want a government of quality, an elected government and not a government stained with blood."
The opposition had refused to talk to the crown prince after the slayings, demanding the Sunni monarchy apologize for the killings and dismiss a government led by the same prime minister — the king’s uncle — for 40 years.
Now, the opposition leaders say they will participate in the dialogue with the crown prince if he will back his words with action.
The opposition has also called for the formation of a constitutional monarchy that would have an elected government. Currently, one house of Bahrain’s parliament is the only elected body, but it holds limited authority since all the country’s decisions — including the appointment of government ministers — rest with the king.
However, even the 40-member institution has been in limbo since the 18 opposition legislators resigned last month to protest the government’s deadly crackdown.
Some of the protesters camped out in the capital’s Pearl Square are demanding that the Sunni monarchy step aside altogether.
Bahrain holds particular importance to Washington as the host of US Navy’s 5th Fleet, the main American military counterweight to Iran’s efforts to expand its armed forces and reach into the Gulf.
In Manama, Jeffrey Feltman, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, underlined Washington’s "unwavering support" for the Gulf kingdom, praising the king’s efforts to defuse tensions, but also urging the rulers to answer "the legitimate aspirations of the Bahraini people."
Feltman said the crown prince’s pledge for a national dialogue was "a positive step." For the talks to be successful, they should include "the full spectrum of Bahraini society" and "quickly produce concrete actions and reforms," he added.
The island’s Sunni dynasty has ruled Bahrain’s Shias for 200 years. The ruling family has strong backing from other Gulf Arab leaders, who fear that Shia powerhouse Iran could gain further footholds through the uprising.
Late Thursday, fighting broke out between residents in the mixed Sunni-Shia area of Hamad Town, about 15 kilometers (9 miles) west of Manama. The reasons behind the fighting were not immediately clear and police pushed hard to disperse the crowd. Some people were injured and taken to hospital.
Similar clashes have occurred in the past between newly naturalized Bahrainis — primarily Sunnis — and Shias who have lived in the kingdom for decades.
Shias say many of the newly naturalized were given citizenship by the state in an attempt to increase the number of Sunnis in the country. Many of the newly naturalized Bahrainis are originally from Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq and Pakistan.