Bahrain opposition party optimistic about talks

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Senior members of Bahrain’s largest opposition party told The Washington Times on Thursday that they were cautiously optimistic about upcoming talks with the government after it took several confidence-building measures.

Tensions in the small, U.S.-allied Persian Gulf island kingdom have calmed somewhat since the initial days of mass protests early last week, when security forces killed seven protesters.

Under pressure from President Obama, who phoned Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa Friday night, the regime on Saturday allowed protesters in the capital Manama to return to Pearl Roundabout, the main hub of protest activity.

The king and other members of the Sunni royal family have sinced called for a national dialogue with the primarily Shiite opposition, announced the release more than 300 political prisoners, and declared Friday a day of mourning for those killed.

“We would like to see more, but we are quite upbeat and very pleased with the steps taken so far,” said Jasim Hussain, senior member of parliament from Wefaq, the leading political voice for the country’s long-disenfranchised Shi’ite majority.

Abduljalil Khalil, the bloc’s parliamentary chief, called the steps “very positive” and said they boded well for the dialogue with the government.

No date has been set for the talks to begin, but Wefaq and six other opposition groups have been meeting to coordinate demands.

While most opposition leaders have expressed willingness to let the royal family remain, albeit in a more limited role, they are demanding full legislative authority for the lower, elected house of parliament and a cabinet whose members are popularly chosen rather than handpicked by the king.

The Wefaq MPs said they wanted the Obama administration to use its leverage in Bahrain to facilitate democratic reforms.

“We are following the statements from the United States,” said Jawad Fairoz, another senior Wefaq MP. “We don’t want to hear that they put major pressure on Egyptian government to move toward democracy, but here the pressure is somehow not as great.”

Mr. Hussain said that protesters were happy the administration, which had previously refrained from even mentioning Bahrain, now seemed engaged.

“For some time, the view on Obama was that he was too busy with domestic stuff, including in his State of the Union Address,” he said. “But the events in Tunisia, and certainly in Egypt, have proven that the administration really cares about spreading democracy in the region.”

On Thursday, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen arrived in Bahrain for meetings with King Hamad and Crown Prince Salman.

Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy’s strategically crucial fifth fleet — which some fear could be endangered if Bahraini Shi’ites, an estimated 70 percent of the country’s 500,000-plus citizens, elected a government more conciliatory toward Iran.

Messrs. Husain, Fairoz and Khalil all said they supported the fleet and did not want Bahrain to become an Iranian satelite.

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About the Author

Ben Birnbaum

Ben Birnbaum is a reporter covering foreign affairs for The Washington Times. Prior to joining The Times, Birnbaum worked as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic. A Boston-area native, he graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University with a degree in government and psychology. He won multiple collegiate journalism awards for his articles and columns in the Cornell Daily Sun.

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