- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The leader of Bahrain’s largest opposition party Wednesday confirmed that senior officials had engaged in informal contacts with the government, following a Washington Times report about a secret meeting.

Wefaq National Islamic Society secretary-general Ali Salman, asked about The Times report during a press conference, made a point to stress that the contact had been informal and unofficial.

The Washington Times first reported Tuesday that senior Wefaq officials had met royal court minister Khaled bin Ahmed earlier this month to discuss resuming long-stalled talks aimed at resolving the country’s year-old sectarian crisis.

Bahrain, the tiny Persian Gulf island kingdom that hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, has been in a political stalemate since last February, when Wefaq lawmakers resigned to protest a crackdown on anti-government protesters.

The bloc, which represents the kingdom’s Shiite majority, has struggled over the past year to meld its desire for reconciliation with the Sunni royal family with its need to keep faith with its increasingly hard-line Shiite base.

Al Wefaq is sensitive to perceptions that it will abandon those most affected by the crackdown, and any kind of move toward reconciliation that doesn’t address lots of key issues would cost it its legitmacy as the country’s most important opposition force,” said Rutgers University professor Toby Jones, a former Bahrain-based consultant for the International Crisis Group. “It looks to people like they will sell out.”

Wefaq previosuly had placed tough preconditions on rejoining talks, demanding the prime minister’s resignation as well as a government commitment to wide-ranging political reforms.

But in phone interviews with The Times, bloc leaders softened that position, saying Wefaq would talk to the government if it agreed to place its demands on the agenda.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has pledged reforms but faces resistance from his Sunni supporters, who fear that greater enfranchisement of Shiite parties might jeopardize Bahrain’s relative secularism.

“The government and Al Wefaq are stuck in the same place,” said Mr. Jones. “They would like to see some sort of compromise that leaves them in authority within their respective communities.

“The dilemma for Al Wefaq is that it can’t be viewed as undermining the youth movement that will continue to protest if their demands aren’t met.”

In a written statement Wednesday, a senior official with Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority said the government “remains committed to achieving reconciliation and has worked constantly to engage in dialogue with all constituencies in the Kingdom.”

“In a speech on Sunday, His Majestythe King emphasized the spirit of cohesion and reconciliation in Bahrain,” Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Mubarak Al-Khalifa wrote. “It is our sincere hope that all parties come together in an official dialogue for the betterment of Bahrain.”