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Bahrain attacks signal worsening national crisis

This week's bombings in Bahrain harkens to another period of unrest, in the 1990s, when a national referendum helped calm tensions. A similar peace process is desperately needed today.

One bomb, placed outside a cinema in Manama, killed a street cleaner doing his job early on Monday morning. A second blast took the life of another unlucky labourer. Three other explosions rattled through the capital within hours of each other. Those five coordinated explosions - undoubtedly acts of terrorism - show a worrying new development in Bahrain's political crisis.

Moreover, these violent reminders tell us that in times of political uncertainty, bloodshed remains the lowest common denominator.

There can be no excuse for the bombing campaign, and the culprits are still unknown, but most commentators have linked the attacks to the country's political turmoil since protests began at the Pearl Roundabout last year. Police have been the targets of several attacks, and since February 2011 more than 50 people have been killed. But Monday's strikes were an anomaly because they targeted civilians.

There have been no statements of responsibility, although fingers have been pointed at more radical elements of the protest movement. Opposition activists in turn suggested security forces might have planted the bombs to justify a strong response.

It is important to differentiate peaceful calls for political reform from criminal acts of terrorism. The main opposition party Al Wefaq has quickly condemned the attacks. As some have asked, who gains by the senseless murder of two migrant workers?

No matter where the investigation leads, attention must also focus on the political backdrop framing this week's violence. Deep grievances remain amid the stalled pace of reforms. Last month, the interior ministry moved to outlaw gatherings of any size, but that has done little to stem the unrest on the streets.

As bad as events in Bahrain appear, the country does have a workable model that can help it out of the impasse. It has, after all, been in a similar situation before. In the 1990s, thousands of leftists, liberals and Islamists joined in demands for reform, with fringe elements of the opposition also committing contemptible acts of violence. After 40 people were killed, and with anti-government protests occurring on a near-daily basis, broad reforms and constitutional changes were approved in a national referendum in 2001.

Bahrain needs a similar reconciliation - and an understanding on both sides that compromise is essential to restore peace today and in the future.

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