Hardline Shi'ite groups demand republic in Bahrain

MANAMA Tue Mar 8, 2011 9:58am EST

1 of 3. A female anti-government protester holds a banner during a protest at the Bahrain Financial Habour in Manama, March 7, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed

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MANAMA (Reuters) - Three hardline Bahraini Shi'ite Muslim groups said on Tuesday they had joined together with the goal of bringing down the Bahraini Gulf Arab monarchy and setting up a republic.

The move by the three Shi'ite groups is likely to be seen by the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family as an escalation and raises the chances of a renewed security crackdown against mainly Shi'ite protesters.

The new movement, made up of groups much smaller than the main opposition group Wefaq, widens a split within the broader Shi'ite opposition movement that is demanding more representation and better access to jobs within the system.

"This tripartite coalition adopts the choice of bringing down the existing regime in Bahrain and the establishment of a democratic republican system," the three groups said in a joint statement.

Bahrain has been gripped by the worst unrest since the 1990s after a youth movement emboldened by protests across the Arab world took to the streets last month. Seven were killed in clashes with security forces, but the situation has since been calmer.

The new Shi'ite opposition bloc includes Al Haq, Wafa and the Freedom Movement and calls itself the "Coalition for a Republic."

The groups held a news conference at the protesters' camp, calling for peaceful change through civil disobedience and civil resistance.

The majority of Bahrainis are Shi'ites but the island, home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet and located just off the coast of the world's largest oil exporter, is led by the U.S.-backed al-Khalifa Sunni Muslim royal family.

Thousands are still camped out in a square in Manama, with many of them demanding the ouster of Bahrain's ruling family.

Haq and its leader Hassan Mushaimaa have questioned the legitimacy of the ruling family in the past and the government has arrested its leaders several times in recent years, including during a security crackdown last August.

But Mushaimaa and other Haq leaders were pardoned by the King after the protests erupted in Bahrain and Mushaimaa returned to Bahrain from London last month.

Bahrain's largest Shi'ite group Wefaq, which draws larger support numbers than Haq and the youth movement, is more moderate and has only called for the resignation of the government and a true constitutional monarchy that cedes more power to the people.

(Reporting by Lin Noueihed; Writing by Frederik Richter; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)

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