Bahrain says will hold dialogue to end crisis soon

DUBAI Sat Mar 10, 2012 9:01am EST

1 of 3. Rulla Jaffar, a doctor who is on trial for taking part in anti-government protest, wears chains on her hands as she participates in an anti-government rally in Budaiya, west of Manama, March 9, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed

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DUBAI (Reuters) - An adviser to Bahrain's King Hamad said the Gulf Arab state would hold a "comprehensive dialogue" soon to end a year-long political crisis but the opposition said it was unaware of such plans.

The comments by Nabeel Al-Hamer, the king's media advisor, were published by the state news agency late on Friday after a leading Shi'ite cleric led what appeared to be the biggest opposition pro-democracy demonstration since a wave of protests erupted in February last year.

"Al-Hamer said there would soon be a comprehensive dialogue including all elements of Bahraini society and affirmed that everyone wants to end the crisis the country is in," BNA said.

A senior figure from the leading Shi'ite opposition party Wefaq said the group was not aware that any new talks were planned. "We haven't heard officially from them yet," said Abduljalil Khalil.

In an incident that may complicate efforts to find a compromise, a 22-year-old Shi'ite man, Fadhel Mirza, died on Friday after being struck by a tear gas canister in clashes the previous day, the opposition Wefaq party said on Saturday.

Wefaq walked out of a national dialogue last July saying it was a sham. Shi'ites form the majority of Bahrain's native population but complain of political marginalization by the Sunni ruling Al Khalifa family. The government denies this.

The previous dialogue, which approved giving the elected parliament some more powers of oversight over ministers and budgets, followed a wave of pro-democracy street protests.

Bahrain's response was to impose martial law and invite Saudi and United Arab Emirates troops to help crush what it regarded as an uprising.

The United States, a powerful ally, has called on the government to talk to Wefaq and other groups. The U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in Manama.

PRESSURE FOR REFORM

The country's legal opposition parties say they want electoral reform and full legislative powers for the elected parliament and elected government - changes that worry Bahrain's powerful Sunni neighbor Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Royal court minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed met with figures from Wefaq and separately with other opposition parties in January and February to sound them out about possible negotiations. But youth activists and dissident political groups opposed to the monarchy do not want Wefaq to enter into talks.

Activists carried banners at Friday's march outside Manama which gathered an estimated 100,000 people saying "No dialogue with killers".

They say at least 27 people have died since martial law ended in June due to heavy policing, many from the effects of tear gas. The government has queried the causes of death and whether they can rightly be attributed to the political crisis.

Clashes occur on a daily basis between riot police and youths in Shi'ite districts. The government describes the youths, who throw petrol bombs at police, as vandals and says Wefaq should do more to reign them in.

Pro-government Sunni groups, who accuse the opposition of loyalty to Shi'ite power Iran, have called on the government not to enter into talks.

(Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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