MANAMA Bahrain opposition groups welcomed a government appeal for dialogue to break a deadlock in the restive kingdom, saying they were prepared to meet without any pre-conditions, but called for the results of talks to be put to a referendum.
The Gulf Arab state, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, has been convulsed by unrest since February last year following mass demonstrations led by majority Shi'ites demanding democratic change in the Sunni-led monarchy.
The ruling Al Khalifa family brought in Gulf Arab troops, mainly from Saudi Arabia, and imposed over two months of martial law to end the uprising. Small-scale clashes between police and protesters now happen almost daily.
Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifah told a conference on Middle East security in Manama on Friday that real progress can only come through face-to-face negotiations.
Wefaq, the leading opposition group in Bahrain, said in a statement it was willing to take part in talks but the outcome should "be approved by the people".
The group's leader Sheikh Ali Salman told Reuters he would push for a referendum, an idea first aired before a failed attempt at dialogue last year. But he said a referendum was a not a condition of starting talks.
"We have clear opinion about that. We are looking for a dialogue without any precondition and it is the same for the government - don't put any precondition," he said in an interview in Manama.
Bahrain, where the Fifth Fleet is based as a bulwark against Iran, accuses Tehran of encouraging the unrest. Iran, which is led by Shi'ite clerics, has denied meddling in Bahrain's affairs.
Some Sunni Bahrainis argue against democracy in the kingdom citing what they describe as the influence of Iran's Shi'ite clerics over Bahrain's Shi'ite majority.
"People vote for religious figures. Their mentality is to follow the religious leader," said a prominent Bahraini Twitter user who styles himself Ateekster and asked for his real name not to be used in a phone interview.
Pro-government members of parliament and advisers to the authorities have complained that it is not clear whether Wefaq could speak for the whole opposition and that it has shifted position before on possible talks.
Other groups, including the secular Waad, also welcomed the call for new dialogue.
In his speech on Friday, Crown Prince Salman urged all political figures to condemn street violence.
King Hamad last year called for talks "without preconditions", but that initiative quickly stalled when Wefaq pulled out, saying its views were not being taken seriously.
Salman said he had been indirectly contacted by the authorities but did not have any information on when talks would take place.
The two sides have appeared to softened their positions in recent days. In his speech the crown prince said Bahrain needed to work harder on judicial reform and to ensure policing was equally applied to all Bahrainis.
On Friday Wefaq's leader chastised protesters chanting slogans directly attacking the king and ruling family.
The authorities have banned protests, saying they often lead to confrontations that block the streets, and revoked the nationality of 31 activists. Opposition groups say brutality and repression used to put down last year's revolt, which embarrassed Bahrain's Western allies, continues.
"We demand that the authorities stop using excessive and systematic force against citizens," the opposition statement said.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall in Manama and Sami Aboudi in Dubai; Editing by Rosalind Russell)