* Island state in political turmoil since 2011
* Minister says government will moderate talks
* Opposition says it hopes discussions will be serious
(Adds EU comments)
By Sami Aboudi
DUBAI, Jan 23 Bahrain on Wednesday asked
pro-democracy opposition parties to nominate delegates for talks
to try to break nearly two years of political deadlock in the
Gulf Arab state.
The island state, base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, has
been in turmoil since protests erupted in 2011 led by majority
Shi'ite Muslims demanding an end to the Sunni-led monarchy's
political domination and full powers for parliament.
Thirty-five people died during the unrest and two months of
martial law that followed, but the opposition puts that number
at more than 80. The government rejects the figures and has
accused opposition groups of being linked to Shi'ite power Iran.
Khalil al-Marzouq, a leader of the main opposition bloc
Wefaq, said the Justice Ministry's director general had
contacted him and asked the opposition to nominate six
representatives for the talks.
"He was also getting in touch with other groups from the
loyalist side," Marzouq told Reuters. "They have started taking
steps, but they are still very slow steps, and no one still has
any picture of what is going to happen."
Though martial law has been lifted and Bahrain has
introduced some reforms, the opposition sees the measures as
cosmetic and smaller scale protests have continued.
The call for dialogue was welcomed by the EU.
"The EU stands ready to support the process as and when
wished by the Bahraini side," said Michael Mann, spokesman for
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
The Justice Ministry said the first meetings would try to
agree on an agenda for the talks, the state's BNA news agency
said, without giving further details.
Information Minister Samira Rajab had earlier welcomed the
opposition's response to the invitation, made on Monday by the
Justice Ministry on behalf of King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa,
and said the government would ask all parties to name delegates
to the talks, which she said could start soon.
"All the steps will start. I think the time frame will go
fast, as long as all the parties are willing to go through
positive, very serious dialogue," she said.
She said the government would moderate the event, help set
the agenda and implement any recommendations.
"As far as I understand, the government won't be represented
there. They will be the moderators, the regulator," she said
Opposition groups say previous promises of constructive
dialogue by the authorities have come to nothing and accuse the
government of continuing to crush dissent.
But six opposition groups said after a meeting in Bahrain on
Tuesday they welcomed the king's call for talks and said the two
sides need to jointly work on implementing any accord within an
agreed time frame and with proper guarantees.
"We have to learn from the previous (round) of dialogue in
order to ensure we do not fail this time," Marzouq said.
Talks in July 2011 ended inconclusively after Wefaq
withdrew, complaining it had not been allowed enough
representation at the negotiations, and there were too many
handpicked participants to reach a meaningful consensus.
Shi'ite Muslims complain of discrimination in the electoral
system, jobs, housing, education and government departments.
(Reporting by Sami Aboudi and William Maclean; Additional
reporting by Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Editing by Myra