* Opposition protests expected on Feb. 14 uprising
* Monarchy trying to revive reconciliation talks with
* No sign of willingness to compromise on democracy demands
* Low-level street violence keeps US strategic ally on edge
(Adds explosions, details)
By Farishta Saeed
MANAMA, Feb 14 Three years after Bahraini
security forces subdued a popular uprising, the ruling family
has launched a new dialogue with opponents to tackle simmering
discontent; but a breakthrough remains elusive.
Bahrain's fellow conservative Gulf Arab states and the West
have a stake in the stability of the island monarchy, which
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 low-level political conflict on
the third anniversary of a Feb. 14 uprising spearheaded by
majority Shi'ites seeking democratic reform and an end to what
they see as discrimination by 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
forces out of Shi'ite villages, witnesses said.
At least four policemen were injured on Friday in two
separate "terrorist" explosions targeting police patrols,
according to an Interior Ministry spokesman.
Police deployed extra forces and closed some roads leading
out of villages around Manama, preparing for marches on Friday
by a group called February 14 and on Saturday by the main
opposition al-Wefaq movement.
Dozens of protesters demonstrated in different areas around
the country. Youths threw stones at police who fired tear gas
rounds, witnesses said.
"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 tyres on the
roads and the police attack them with teargas."
Two rounds of dialogue between the opposition and government
since 2011 have 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 and other political figures to try to pave the way for
formal talks to resume.
Further sessions are expected but it is not known when.
Analysts see little sign of preparedness on either side to
bridge substantive differences.
"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.
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 it
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."
Information Minister Samira Rajab said: "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."
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.
(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy; Writing by Sami Aboudi
and Rania El Gamal; Editing by Ralph Boulton)