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The wave of protests by the Shi’a majority in Bahrain against the ruling Sunni dynasty has intensified sectarian tensions in the small Gulf kingdom that is fast approaching complete political paralysis.
“At the moment there is no more trust between the communities,” said prominent Sunni cleric Abdullatif Mahmud, accusing the main Shi'a opposition formation Al-Wefaq of being behind the mutual suspicions.
“Wefaq works for the interest of its community and not for that of the country,” said Mahmud, head of the National Unity Assembly (NUA) formed at the height of Shi’a-led anti-regime protests last year, at a pro-government rally.
“The street is divided, but - thanks to God - we have not reached a sectarian confrontation,” he said, adding: “There is no place for dialogue between the NUA and Wefaq which does not recognise us as a political force.”
Shi'a demonstrators are back on the street in Bahrain almost daily, calling for the fall of the regime of King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, whose family has ruled the Gulf archipelago since 1783.
“Down with Hamad,” chanted about 3 000 protesters who rallied last week in the Shi'a village of Muqsha, shortly after a UN debate in Geneva on the human rights situation in Bahrain.
They dubbed their rally venue Liberty Square to avoid confrontation with police by trying to return to Manama's former Pearl Square, where protesters camped for a month last year before being driven out in a mid-March crackdown.
In stark contrast, large posters of King Hamad and his son, Crown Prince Sheikh Salman, have been put up at main squares in Manama.
There are also posters of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, an uncle of King Hamad who has been in office for 40 years and is widely despised by the Shi’as.
A tentative attempt early this year to reignite dialogue between the palace and the opposition was short-lived, with each side accusing the other of throwing a spanner in the works.
“The door to dialogue remains open,” said state minister for information Samira Rajab. “The king wants the dialogue to lead to common ground, an idea that is rejected by Wefaq,” she said.
“Wefaq does not have a pure Bahraini approach because it falls under external pressures,” Rajab added in a clear reference to Shi’a Iran across the Gulf.
The opposition led by Al-Wefaq was in the political vanguard of the demonstrations that broke out in mid-February, 2011. Its demands included a real constitutional monarchy under which the prime minister would be elected.
Recent constitutional amendments which gave the elected chamber the right to hold a vote of no confidence in the premier were dismissed by the opposition as insufficient.
“Why reject a government that is accountable to parliament and demand a government that would be 100 percent sectarian?” asked Rajab, who is herself a Shi’a.
Al-Wefaq controlled 18 of the 40 seats in the elected lower chamber before its MPs resigned in February last year in protest over violence being used against protesters.
“There should be good intentions, because any hardening on one side will lead to the hardening of the opposite position,” Rajab said.
The opposition insists that it wants serious negotiations.
“We want a serious dialogue without preconditions to reach an agreement to resolve the crisis,” said former Wefaq MP Jawad Fairouz.
“But this dialogue cannot succeed unless political prisoners are released and a referendum is held to endorse its conclusions,” he said, adding that Wefaq insists on the peaceful voicing of demands.
“We reject violence, regardless of from which side it comes,” he said.
The authorities in Bahrain have come under fierce criticism from international human rights organisations over last year's deadly crackdown on protests.
An international panel commissioned by King Hamad to investigate the government's clampdown found that excessive force and torture had been used against protesters.
Amnesty International estimates that 60 people have been killed since the protests erupted last year.
Authorities should “first implement the recommendations of the independent inquiry commission” said Yosuf al-Khaja of the leftist secular National Democratic Action Association, or Waed in Arabic, casting doubt on government intentions to introduce reforms.
Ordinary people say that there should be concessions on both sides.
“If not, one day we will all pay the price,” one taxi driver who refused to give his name or religious affiliation told AFP. - Sapa-AFP