- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 28, 2011

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Just days before Bahrain’s Sunni rulers hope to open talks with the Shiite opposition they crushed, the country’s most powerful pro-reform bloc is asking supporters a pivotal question: whether to join or snub the dialogue.

Already, the leaders of the Shiite political group Al Wefaq have appeared to show their leanings — questioning how reconciliation efforts, pushed by the U.S., can proceed while authorities still impose rigid security measures and hold trials linked to the Shiite-led campaign for greater rights.

Now the question of whether to participate in the government-arranged dialogue beginning Saturday is being debated in town-hall-style meetings around the strategic Gulf island nation, home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

Much hangs on the outcome.

The absence of Wefaq would be a severe blow to the credibility of the talks and reinforce the sense that Bahrain is still deeply wounded after more than four months of unrest.

"It's not a good atmosphere. They picked a date, they sent out invitations, and they decided on the agenda. We feel that even the result of this dialogue has already been determined. That is a bad sign." - Ali Salman, the leader of Wefaq (Associated Press)
“It’s not a good atmosphere. They picked a date, they sent out ... more >

Wefaq is the leading political voice for Shiites — about 70 percent of Bahrain’s 1.2 million people — and held 18 seats in the 40-member parliament before a mass resignation to protest the violence against demonstrators.

It also would sting Washington, which has publicly backed the talks as the only option to calm tensions in one of its main Gulf military allies. At the same time, the U.S. is under growing pressures to take a harder line against Bahrain’s ruling dynasty, which claims that the Shiite power Iran has a role in the protests.

At least 31 people have died since February, when Bahrain’s Shiites — inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East — started a campaign for greater freedoms and an end to the Sunni hold on power.

Hundreds of Shiite opposition supporters and leaders have been arrested or dismissed from state jobs and universities.

Last week, eight prominent opposition activists were sentenced to life in prison. On Monday, 28 doctors and nurses faced charges of taking part in the protests and spreading “false news” — which is seen as a reference to talking to foreign media.

On Tuesday, defense lawyers said the 28 doctors and nurses were released from custody, though charges against them were not dropped.

At least 20 health professionals, who treated injured protesters during the unrest, remain in prison.

“It’s not a good atmosphere,” said Ali Salman, the leader of Wefaq, who suggested Bahrain’s rulers are seeking dialogue to improve the country’s image as safe again for tourism and foreign investors.

“They picked a date, they sent out invitations, and they decided on the agenda,” Mr. Salman said. “We feel that even the result of this dialogue has already been determined. That is a bad sign.”

Muneera Fakhro, a Sunni politician who is leading the secular Al Waad party at the talks, said the entire effort would be futile without Wefaq.

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