MANAMA Bahrainis of different political stripes faced off in a rare forum on Saturday to try to bridge deep rifts against a backdrop of continued disturbances outside the Gulf Arab state's capital.
Bahrain, a key U.S. and Saudi ally in their stand-off with Iran across the Gulf, has been in turmoil since the Arab Spring protest movement first erupted. Saudi troops helped Bahraini authorities crush the uprising last March.
But clashes later resumed and have become a daily occurrence, usually in districts populated by majority Shi'ite Muslims who have dominated the protests. Disturbances have worsened in recent weeks as the February 14 anniversary of the start of the unrest approaches.
"Everybody is worried. We don't want to see violence on the streets, from police or civilians. We want people to be able to talk freely and express their opinions," said Eyad Ebrahim, one of the organizers of the "Bahrain Debate" in Manama.
"We need to move beyond this social tension because even if we have a political problem, there is no need for the community to disintegrate," he told Reuters. He said the forum was a means of transcending inflamed arguments on social media like Twitter.
Earlier on Saturday a police patrol jeep was destroyed in a petrol bomb attack along a highway outside Manama and the interior ministry said one person had been injured.
Activists who call themselves the February 14 Revolutionaries also distributed online images of a burnt-out guardpost at a police station in Sitra, an impoverished district that has been a centre for clashes for months.
"A fundamental solution to the political problem is needed to end the vicious circle," said Omar Al Shehabi, who heads the Gulf Centre for Policy Studies, citing unrest going back decades. "I don't know any home or family that has not been affected or had someone imprisoned.
"All parts of the population need to have a role in writing the constitution. The constitution of 2002 was written behind closed doors," he said.
A group of international legal experts commissioned by Sunni Muslim King Hamad to investigate the uprising and crackdown reported in November that 35 people had died when martial law was lifted in June.
But activists say ongoing violence has taken the number of deaths to over 60, some from tear gas or from being hit by cars in pursuit of youths. The government disputes the causes of death.
Fahad AlBinali, a law graduate who works in the ministry of justice, said the protest movement had proven a political awakening for Bahrainis but opposition parties had taken too hard a line since then.
"Before February 14, like many in Bahrain, I was not interested in Bahrainis politics," he said. "All that changed on February 14 2011. With February 14 came a political awakening and a realization that we do indeed have a voice."
"I never believed the Arab Spring was about the fall of governments, it was about the achieving of democracy," AlBinali said, adding: "What I've seen over the last 10 months was a rejectionist attitude that created an artificial stalemate that is further dividing Bahraini society."
The leading opposition party Wefaq walked out of a national dialogue in July that resulted in granting more powers of scrutiny to parliament - short of opposition demands for elected government and reduced powers for the Al Khalifa family.
Wefaq also boycotted elections in September for parliament seats that it quit in February over the deaths of protesters at the hands of government forces.
Youth activist Mohammed Hassan began his speech by standing up in a moment's silence for the dead. Most of the audience and speakers joined in.
Samira Rajab, a member of the appointed upper house of parliament and prominent critic of the opposition, said this was an example of opposition participants using emotional tactics to push their agenda, but she welcomed the initiative in general.
"This was done by young people who feel there is a problem in society. The problem is sectarian tension and rejection, and that's the result of February 14," she said. "It was quite constructive, and perhaps there could be new ideas that emerge."
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)