* Opposition protests expected on Feb. 14 uprising
* Monarchy trying to revive reconciliation talks with
* No sign of willingness for compromise on democracy demands
* Low-level street violence keeps US strategic ally on edge
By Farishta Saeed
MANAMA, Feb 14 Three years after the eruption of
a popular uprising in Bahrain that security forces subdued but
have failed to stamp out, the ruling family has launched a new
dialogue with the opposition but a breakthrough to end the
turmoil remains elusive.
Bahrain's fellow conservative Gulf Arab states and the West
have high stakes in the stability of the island monarchy because
it hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet and lies at the heart of a tussle
for regional influence between Shi'ite Muslim Iran and Sunni
powerhouse and world No. 1 oil producer Saudi Arabia.
But Bahrain seems trapped in a treadmill of recrimination
and low-level but chronic political conflict on the third
anniversary of the Feb. 14 uprising spearheaded by majority
Shi'ites seeking democratic reform and an end to alleged
discrimination at the hands of the Sunni Muslim monarchy.
The stand-off is played out in street protest almost daily.
Young men staged small rallies around the capital Manama in
the run-up to Friday's anniversary, blocking roads with metal
bars, garbage containers and cinder blocks to keep security
force out of Shi'ite villages, witnesses said.
Police deployed extra forces and closed some roads leading
out of some villages around Manama, and they braced for marches
expected on Friday by a group called February 14 and on Saturday
by the main opposition al-Wefaq movement.
"After three years since the start of the protests, we have
seen no peace," said a 34-year-old clerk in the village of Saar
who identified himself only as Abu Ali. "Every day there is a
problem in our area. The youngsters go out and burn tires on the
roads and the police attack them with teargas."
Two rounds of reconciliation-oriented dialogue between the
opposition and government since 2011 ended inconclusively, and
Bahrainis are now banking on a new attempt backed by Crown
Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa to revive the talks.
Crown Prince Sheikh Salman, a relative moderate in the Sunni
al-Khalifa family that has ruled Bahrain since the 18th century,
stepped in last month to try to narrow differences - four months
after the second round of reconciliation talks was suspended in
the face of an opposition boycott.
Several meetings have since been held between Royal Court
Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa and opposition
leaders to try to pave the way for formal talks to resume.
Further sessions are expected but it is not known when, and
analysts cite little sign of preparedness on either side to
bridge the major substantive differences, as has been the case
from the outset of the crisis.
"Each of the country's three main political conflicts -
opposition versus government, Sunnis versus Shi'ites and
reformists versus obstructionists within the ruling family -
continues unabated," said Justin Gengler, a Bahrain expert
Bahrain at Qatar University in Doha.
In boycotting reconciliation talks, the opposition accused
the government of trying to sideline its leaders after at least
two were investigated on incitement charges and a group of
Shi'ite clerics was ordered shut down by a Bahraini court.
FEAR OF STALEMATE PROMOTING MILITANCY
Concern is rising that young Shi'ites will resort more and
more to violent militancy if mainstream opposition leaders fail
to advance a political settlement that would give Shi'ites a
bigger say in government and improve living conditions.
A tiny Gulf archipelago of 1.7 million people, Bahrain has
been in turmoil since police, assisted by invited Saudi armed
forces, crushed the original uprising.
The government says it has since implemented some reforms
recommended by an international investigative team and that
is willing to discuss further demands.
Shi'ites want wider-ranging democratisation, entailing
cabinets chosen by an elected parliament, rather than appointed
exclusively by the king. They also call for an end to alleged
discrimination in jobs, housing and other benefits. The
government denies any policy of marginalising Shi'ites.
Al-Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman blamed what he called the
authorities' ultimate preference for security crackdowns over a
genuine political opening for the stalemate dragging on.
"This is the third year of the revolution. Had wisdom been
used by the government, there wouldn't be a popular revolution
and a political solution would have been reached in the first
few months," Sheikh Ali told Reuters. "But by choosing the
security option, we have entered the fourth year."
PROTESTERS BRANDED "TERRORISTS"
Information Minister Samira Rajab said: "The claims of
terrorists that there is a revolution in Bahrain are all lies.
Bahrainis are practicing their normal lives.
"The small clashes that started yesterday will not affect
the national dialogue because these are the work of terrorists
and we are not sitting at the table with them. We are sitting
with the opposition," Rajab told Reuters.
Parliamentarian Adel Alasomi said the dialogue enjoyed the
support of King Hamad, describing the monarch as the sole
guarantor of co-existence between all communities in Bahrain.
"Everybody is entitled to peaceful activities, and this is
guaranteed by the constitution," said Alasomi. But, he stressed,
violent means of change had no place in Bahrain.
Pro-government Bahrainis dismissed the anniversary,
preparing instead to mark 13 years since the introduction of
reforms by King Hamad after he succeeded his father. Those
measures expand parliament's powers to include questioning and
removing ministers and withdrawing confidence in the cabinet.
Um Abdallah, a 42-year-old secretary from Isa town, said it
was high time for both parties to knuckle down and produce a
solution beneficial to all in Bahrain.
"I have to say that both the government and the opposition
are wrong. The government should have shown more effort and
sincerity in their steps towards dialogue and the opposition
should have stopped terrorising innocent citizens."
Other Gulf Arab monarchies have forestalled serious Arab
Spring unrest through crackdowns on opposition Islamists and
lavish handouts from huge oil revenues to potentially restive
sections of the population, especially the young and jobless.
Uprisings against entrenched autocracies elsewhere in the
Arab world since 2011 have toppled four heads of state, while
Syria has been shattered by an almost three-year-old civil war.
(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy; Writing by Sami Aboudi;
Editing by Mark Heinrich)