DUBAI Bahrain's opposition said on Wednesday the first session of a national dialogue for reforms in the Gulf island kingdom raised questions over whether talks aimed at easing tensions after unrest this year can succeed.
The country's Sunni rulers crushed mostly Shi'ite-led pro-democracy protests in March. After a four-month crackdown, Bahrain hopes to lay the groundwork to heal deep rifts.
But opposition groups said the first working session of the dialogue on Tuesday night left them concerned that their main demand -- a representative, directly elected government -- would never reach a consensus in break-out groups where some 60 people were allowed only five minutes to present their views.
"To reach a complete solution to the big problems, you have five minutes to speak? What is that?" asked Sayed al-Mousawi of the main Shi'ite opposition group Wefaq. "Is this dialogue?"
The organizers of the national dialogue have said sessions will continue over a two-week period and then convene again if consensus is not reached on specific issues.
Bahrain faced international pressure to begin reconciliation after the fierce crackdown in which hundreds of mostly Shi'ites were arrested in the tiny Gulf island state, a financial hub and host to the Fifth Fleet, the U.S. Navy's main regional outpost.
The dialogue has been widely praised by foreign governments as an opportunity for reform and reconciliation. But opposition groups mocked a system where participants were handed numbered placards and called upon to give their five-minute speech.
Four separate sub-groups are involved in the talks, discussing economic, political, social and legal reform issues.
In all, there are 300 participants in the dialogue and just 35 of them are from the opposition. Other representatives are from more pro-government political parties, as well as rights groups, companies and even educational organisations like the Bahrain Astronomical Society.
The government says the make-up guarantees well-rounded talks that represent the whole country. The opposition argues most other participants at the talks are government loyalists.
National Dialogue spokesman Isa Abdul Rahman said the talks were off to a positive start, and that opposition complaints of timing restrictions could be addressed.
"We have to maintain fairness, we can't give one party more time to speak than others. But this is something that could be changed if agreed upon between participants and facilitators," he said.
Some participants at the Tuesday session said tensions were still high among a population recently embroiled in unrest that had taken on sectarian dimensions.
The government previously accused the Shi'ite-led protesters of a sectarian agenda backed by Shi'ite power Iran, just across Gulf waters. The opposition insists its aims are only democratic reform but most Sunni groups loyal to the state say they remain deeply suspicious that the opposition has loyalties to Iran.
Munira Fakhro of the leftist group Waad, Bahrain's second largest opposition party, said sectarianism had taken over the two most critical sessions, on legal and political reforms.
"In the legal session, there was a big dispute between them over Shi'ite and Sunni views on the laws," she said. "The political session had rising tensions, and they still have not raised the very difficult issues. They should."
The next session may be even more contentious. It will discuss reforming the upper house of parliament, a body directly appointed by the king which limits the elected chamber's powers.
Meanwhile, many in Shi'ite villages around the capital Manama are angry that the opposition has agreed to dialogue while hundreds of people are still in jail and dozens face military trial. Many have taken to daily protests demanding the opposition reject the national dialogue.
Around 500 people took part in a protest on Saturday, the day the dialogue was launched. Police fired teargas and rubber bullets and rights groups said several protesters were hurt.
"The street is already angry, really angry," said Sayed al-Mousawy of Wefaq, whose leadership fears losing street support over backing the talks. "For us it's not a comfortable situation."
(Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)