DUBAI, Jan 26 (Reuters) - Bahrain expects talks with the opposition aimed at breaking nearly two years of political deadlock to start next week or early in February, a cabinet member said in comments published on Saturday.
The Gulf Arab state, a U.S. ally against Iran, has been in turmoil since protests erupted in early 2011 led by majority Shi‘ite Muslims demanding an end to the Sunni-led monarchy’s political domination and full powers for parliament.
Wefaq and five other pro-democracy groups have said they are ready to attend the talks but have demanded the government show seriousness in addressing their demands, including for a constitutional democracy with an elected government rather than one appointed by the king.
Thirty-five people died during the unrest and two months of martial law that followed, but the opposition says that number has risen to more than 80. The government rejects the figure.
“The Information Affairs Minister Samira Rajab expected the dialogue talks to start very soon ... by the end of this month or early next month, at the latest,” Bahrain’s Arabic language Akhbar al-Khaleej newspaper said.
King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa called for the talks. Wefaq withdrew from a previous attempt at dialogue in July 2011, complaining there were too many hand-picked participants to reach a meaningful consensus.
An ally of Washington, Bahrain is the base for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and has accused opposition groups of being linked to Shi‘ite Muslim power Iran.
Martial law has been lifted and the government has introduced some reforms but the opposition says the measures are cosmetic and smaller scale protests have continued.
Shi‘ite Muslims complain of discrimination in the electoral system, jobs, housing, education and government departments. (Reporting by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Janet Lawrence)