- Associated Press - Sunday, February 20, 2011

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Bahrain‘s opposition wants the nation’s rulers to guarantee they will back up their conciliatory words with actions, a Shi’ite leader said Sunday as he and other activists weighed the regime’s offer for talks after nearly a week of protests and deadly clashes that have divided the Gulf nation.

The streets in the tiny but strategically important island kingdom were calmer as efforts shifted toward political haggling over demands for the monarchy to give up its near-absolute control over key policies and positions.

But bitterness and tensions still run deep after seesaw battles that included riot police opening fire on protesters trying to reclaim a landmark square and then pulling back to allow them to occupy the site. At least seven people have been killed and hundreds injured since the Arab wave for change reached the Gulf last Monday.

Bahrain‘s rulers appear desperate to open a political dialogue after sharp criticism from Western allies and statements by overseers of next month’s Formula One race that the unrest could force the cancellation of Bahrain‘s premier international event.

Opposition leaders appear to be in no hurry to talk.

“Yesterday you kill people, and today you want them to sit with you. It’s not that easy,” said a leader of the main Shi’ite opposition group Al Wefaq, Abdul-Jalil Khalil, adding that no talks have yet taken place.

“We are not refusing a dialogue with the crown prince, but we need guarantees they will back words with action,” Mr. Khalil said. He said the opposition’s main demand is for the resignation of the government that is responsible for this week’s bloodshed and has been led by the same prime minister — the king’s uncle — for 40 years.

Bahrain holds particular importance to Washington as the host of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which is the main U.S. military counterweight to Iran’s efforts to expand its armed forces and reach into the Gulf. Bahrain‘s ruling Sunni dynasty has strong backing from other Gulf Arab leaders, who fear that Shi’ite powerhouse Iran could gain further footholds through the uprising led by Bahrain‘s Shi’ite majority.

More specifically, the protest demands include abolishing the monarchy’s privileges to set policies and appoint all key political posts, along with addressing long-standing claims of discrimination and abuses against Shi’ites, who represent about 70 percent of Bahrain‘s 525,000 citizens.

No violence was reported Sunday, but many parts of the country were paralyzed by a general strike called by opposition groups and workers unions.

At state-run Gulf Air, union leaders urged workers to join the strike. But an e-mail to employees by the airline’s director warned that any no-shows could face dismissal. The carrier said no flights have been disrupted.

At another state-owned giant, the Bahrain Petroleum Company (BopCo), the trade union told workers they have the right to strike, and some managers even told workers to leave work, said Mehdi Hasan, an electrical engineer at BopCo. Several managers were noting names of employees on strike, Mr. Hasan said.

“I am striking because right now in my life my demands to get rights from the government is my top priority,” Mr. Hasan said. “I want the right to choose and elect those I want in the government.”

Lawyers wearing suits and ties joined protesters at Pearl Square and conducted lessons on Bahrain‘s constitution. They called for government officials to be put on trial after security forces opened fire and “inflicted harm on citizens” — a constitutional offense — as people chanted anti-government slogans and demanded the king be held responsible.

At the Sanabis Intermediate Girls School, about 10 female teachers sat outside the empty schoolyard in a sign of support for the strike.

“We are on strike to support our fellow people in the square,” said Samira Ali, 40, a science teacher. “We feel emboldened with our cause after blood was spilled. I want a real constitutional monarchy where my voice is heard and my message reaches to the government.”

Samira Salman, a 48-year-old Arabic teacher, carried a sign reading, “You can take my life, but you can’t take my freedom.” She wore a Bahrain flag as a cape.

“We won’t leave until our demands for the government to resign are met. I want everything to do with the system to fall. Our blood was on the street, and I feel more confident about our cause,” she said after returning from the protests crowds refilling Pearl Square in central Manama.

Hundreds of protesters spent the night back in the square after the withdrawal Saturday of security forces a day after firing on marchers trying to reach the site, which was the symbolic center of the protest movement inspired by Egyptian demonstrators who refused to leave Cairo’s Tahrir Square until Hosni Mubarak resigned as president.

On Thursday, riot police stormed Pearl Square in a siege that killed five people and sharply escalated the confrontation.

Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, appealed for calm and political dialogue in a brief address on state TV on Saturday.

President Obama discussed the situation with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, asking him to hold those responsible for the violence accountable. He said in a statement that Bahrain must respect the “universal rights” of its people and embrace “meaningful reform.”

In the United Arab Emirates, an important Gulf ally for Bahrain, Foreign Minister Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan urged Bahraini’s opposition groups to accept offer for talks as a way to restore “security and stability.”

Brian Murphy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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