MANAMA // The leader of Bahrain's largest Shiite opposition party said mediation by outside parties is urgently needed to break the impasse between the country's Sunni-led government and its majority Shiite population.
Sheikh Ali Salman, general secretary of Al Wefaq, also said in an interview that his party is working hard to keep the lid on the anger of the Shiite community, which he said faces daily harassment by Bahraini security forces, particularly at checkpoints, where drivers are routinely asked if they are Sunni or Shiite.
"The first thing we are trying to preserve is this peacefulness of the movement and prevent confrontation of our people with security people," Mr Salman said. But he said an "offensive mindset now is growing towards the protesters" among security forces.
Asked if he feared that extremist Shiite elements, which, unlike Wefaq, want Bahrain's royal family ejected from power, might resort to violence if the current stalemate is not resolved, Mr Salman replied: "As the crisis is sustained, [there] are doors open that nobody can control."
Wefaq, which seeks a constitutional monarchy and is disparaged by radical Shiite parties for being willing to negotiate with the government, will remain committed to its peaceful approach, Mr Salman said.
Shiites, who make up more than 60 per cent of the population, have long complained of being politically marginalised by the Sunni royal family and of being discriminated against in jobs, particularly in the military and police.
They therefore embraced the protest movement that began on February 14 as a peaceful demand for political reforms.
Interviewed on Saturday at Wefaq's party headquarters with three of his top aides, Mr Salman said outside intervention was needed to get negotiations going.
"There is very deep distrust between the government and the people and we prefer that some third parties come to help for this dialogue," Mr Salman said.
His preference is for the United States or the United Nations to mediate. But he said Wefaq was in constant contact with a delegation sent by Kuwait's emir, Sheikh Sabah al Ahmed al Sabah, to do so.
On Sunday, al Wasat newspaper, which is close to Wefaq, quoted a member of the Kuwaiti delegation saying that Wefaq has agreed "to accept the dialogue initiative, led by Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, without preconditions".
Sayed Hadi Al Mosawi, one of the Wefaq officials at the interview with Salman, said on Sunday by phone that his party had "put no conditions against Kuwaiti mediation" and that Wefaq's conditions for talks "will be raised later on when the dialogue takes place".
The party is more flexible in its approach to a dialogue with the crown prince than it was in the past, reflecting its weakened position since the government forcefully suppressed the pro-reform movement on March 16.
Until then, Wefaq had demanded as conditions for opening a dialogue the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa and elections for a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution.
During the days just prior to the crackdown on March 16, the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, was in Manama in an effort to win acceptance from both sides of a mediated solution, according to Mr Salman.
On March 15, Wefaq agreed to a proposal Mr Feltman drew up for Qatar's Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamid bin Jassim, to mediate between Bahrain's Crown Prince and the Shiite opposition, the Wefaq party leader added.
But that last-ditch effort did not get off the ground because Mr Feltman's calls to the Crown Prince and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa went unanswered, according to Mr Salman and other opposition sources briefed on the matter.
Mr Feltman's efforts also were overtaken by events, including the March 14 arrival of 1,200 GCC troops and the declaration of martial law on March 15.
A spokesman for the US embassy in Manama, asked about Mr Feltman's aborted efforts to contact the king and crown prince, issued a statement that did not address the question.
It said that Mr Feltman "visited Bahrain approximately two weeks ago to reach out to a wide range of government and non-governmental leaders to promote a meaningful, peaceful, and productive dialogue. We believe security measures alone cannot resolve the challenges facing Bahrain, the United States supports a credible political process that can address the legitimate aspirations of all people of Bahrain, starting with the crown prince's call for dialogue, which we call on all parties to join."
On Sunday, the White House said that the US vice-president, Joe Biden, had called the crown prince to "reiterate US support" for his efforts to start a dialogue with the opposition and to encourage "additional outreach and meaningful reform that is responsive to the aspirations of all Bahrainis".
In any event, the point of Mr Feltman's diplomacy was taken away on March 16 when security forces routed demonstrators from Pearl Roundabout, which had served as the movement's base.
The clampdown that followed has included widespread arrests of movement activists, night-time raids on homes, beatings of pro-reform activists by masked thugs, the firebombing of an opposition leader's home, and confiscation of drivers' personal effects, including money and mobiles, at checkpoints.
Shiite students studying abroad who supported the protest movement have lost their scholarships and Shiite taxi drivers were told they could no longer work the lucrative stand at the airport.
About 17 people, including some from the security forces, have been killed since March 16. Prior to that day, seven had died in violence associated with the protest movement.
"The situation is very, very bad," Mr Al Mosawi said.
The government is "doing this collective punishment to the whole community and this hate-based incitement in the media is horrific."
He was referring to comments in the press and on state television by Sunni hardliners who accuse the Shiites of being disloyal to Bahrain or wanting to harm it. Some say Shiites should leave the country.
Mr Al Mosawi said: "The whole strategy of the authorities here now is to humiliate the whole Shiite community and the protesters because they are mainly Shiite."
Another Wefaq official, Abdul Jalil Khalil Ebrahim, said: "If their intention is to throw Shiites out of the country, they cannot. So if we have to live together, this hatred attitude is not going to help anyone."