Demonstrators take part in a pro-government rally held in Manama (Reuters)
The Shiite opposition groups seeking to loosen the Sunni monarchy's grip on power in Bahrain are ready to talk to the Gulf nation's rulers about political change after weeks of protests, a leading opposition member said Thursday.
Abdul Jalil Khalil said the opposition will accept the crown prince's invitation for dialogue after two weeks of street protests that included a violent crackdown by the security forces in the strategic island nation, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Bahrain's king delegated Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa to lead talks with the opposition groups in an attempt to defuse the showdown with the kingdom's Shiite majority, which has staged daily marches to demand an end to what they say are discriminatory policies and political persecution. It is part of the wave of unrest sweeping the Middle East after uprisings that toppled autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.
"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 Shiite group Al Wefaq.
Khalil said no date has been set for the beginning of the talks. The opposition groups will present their demands and a "framework for dialogue" later on Thursday, he said.
The opposition has previously called for formation of a constitutional monarchy that would have an elected government. Some of the protesters camped out in the capital's Pearl Square are demanding that the Sunni monarchy step aside altogether after security forces killed seven protesters.
Bahrain holds particular importance to Washington as the host of U.S. naval forces that are the main American military counterweight to Iran's efforts to expand its armed forces and reach into the Gulf.
The island's Sunni dynasty had ruled Bahrain's Shiites for 200 years. The ruling family has strong backing from other Gulf Arab leaders, who fear that Shiite powerhouse Iran could gain further footholds through the uprising.