Bahrain opposition seeks talks


Bahrain's main opposition groups eased conditions for talks to end a crisis that has drawn in neighbouring armies, though tensions in the oil-exporting region remained high.

Led by the largest Shia party Wefaq, opposition groups called on security forces to free all those detained in the wake of a month of protests, end their crackdown and ask Gulf Arab troops to leave so talks could begin.

"We will not back down under threat and we will not come to talks with guns pointed at our heads," said Mattar Ibrahim Mattar, a Wefaq MP until the bloc withdrew from parliament a few weeks ago.

But main opposition groups appeared to retreat from much more ambitious conditions they set last week for talks, including creation of a government not dominated by royals and establishment of an elected council to redraft the constitution.

"Prepare a healthy atmosphere for the start of political dialogue between the opposition and the government on a basis that can put our country on the track to real democracy and away from the abyss," their statement said.

The new conditions would take the political process back to the position it was in before the uprising began a month ago.

Bahrain forces moved on Wednesday to end weeks of mostly Shia protests that prompted the king to impose martial law and drew in troops from fellow Sunni-ruled neighbours.

The ferocity of the crackdown, in which troops and police fanned out across Bahrain, imposed a curfew and banned all public gatherings and marches, has stunned Bahrain's majority Shias and angered the region's non-Arab Shia power, Iran.

More than 60 per cent of Bahrainis are Shias, and most are campaigning for a constitutional monarchy, but calls by hardliners for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed Sunnis, who fear the unrest serves Iran, separated from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain by only a short stretch of Gulf waters.

Iran, which supports Shia groups in Iraq and Lebanon, has complained to the United Nations and asked neighbours to join it in urging Saudi Arabia to withdraw forces from Bahrain.

In a sign of rising tensions between the two countries, Bahrain expelled Iran's charge d'affairs today, a diplomatic source told Reuters. He left shortly after the Iranian ambassador, who was asked to leave last week. "Bahraini authorities said he had contacts with some (opposition) groups," the source said.

Bahrain also condemned a protest outside the Saudi consulate in Tehran, after reports yesterday that some 700 demonstrators broke windows and raised a Bahraini flag over the gate.

Sunday was the first working day after a week that saw closures of schools and universities to prevent outbreaks of sectarian clashes that had been erupting almost daily.

An uneasy calm spread through the city as most Bahrainis went back to work and there were fewer checkpoints in the streets, though helicopters buzzed over Shia areas.