Bahrain's opposition quits talks


Bahrain's largest Shia opposition group Wefaq said today it planned to pull out of a national dialogue, which was aimed at reforms after mass pro-democracy protests rocked the Gulf island kingdom earlier this year.

Opposition groups like Wefaq had complained since talks began on July 2nd that they would never be able to get their proposed political reforms put into effect, as the opposition received only 35 of 300 seats at the talks.

The government has defended its apportioning of seats, saying it wanted the talks to include all Bahrainis, whether they were involved in politics or not.

"The Wefaq board decided to pull out of the so-called National Consensus Dialogue and submitted its decision to the Wefaq Shura council (upper council) for ratification," Khalil al-Marzouq, spokesman for Wefaq, said.

"Wefaq tried with all seriousness to offer political solutions and it was always responded to with rejections, or it was ignored," he said.

Mainstream opposition groups such as Wefaq have called for a more representative parliamentary system and greater powers to the elected lower council, whose powers are neutered by the upper Shura council, appointed by the king.

But hardliners calling for the abolition of the monarchy have gained popularity since the crackdown by Bahrain's Sunni rulers. Security forces crushed weeks of protests in March led by the country's majority Shia population, who were demanding a greater say in government.

The government accused the opposition of a sectarian agenda with backing from nearby Shia power Iran, charges the groups deny. Bahrain is seen as a fault line for tensions between Iran and Sunni Gulf Arab countries that are wary of protests spreading to their own Shia minorities.

Government organisers for the dialogue were not immediately available for comment. Last week, dialogue spokesman Isa Abdul Rahman defended the talks, saying they had been inclusive of all voices present.

Wefaq, which had five seats at the talks, held more than 40 per cent of seats in Bahrain's lower parliament before its representatives resigned in protest at the use of force against protests.

During the crackdown in March, hundreds of people, mostly Shia, were arrested and some 2,000 workers were sacked. Around 30 people, mostly protesters but also four policemen, died during the unrest.

Mr Marzouq, of Wefaq, said any dialogue without his group was not representative of popular will in Bahrain.

"We were a majority group in parliament, no longer present at their dialogue. Any dialogue without Wefaq doesn't have real value," he said.

Anti-dialogue protests have been erupting daily in Shia villages and tensions are simmering in Bahrain, home port of the US navy's Fifth Fleet.

Wefaq had warned it did not want to be at odds with popular sentiment, and immediately after announcing its decision to withdraw from talks called for a political rally next Friday.

It was not yet clear if others from among the 35 opposition representatives will withdraw, such as the secular leftist Waad, Bahrain's second largest opposition group.