x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Bahrain moves to dissolve main opposition group, al Wefaq

The legal action is the first time the government has targeted the moderate al Wefaq in its security crackdown after anti-government protests.

MANAMA // Bahrain said on Thursday it would seek court approval to dissolve the main Shiite opposition group al Wefaq, its strongest action yet against the mainstream group with the most opposition seats in parliament.

"The Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs announced it is raising legal action to dissolve the Islamic Action party and Wefaq group," a statement on the Bahrain News Agency (BNA) said.

"This is because of major violations of the constitution and laws of the kingdom, undertaking activities that harmed social peace, national unity, and inciting disrespect for constitutional institutions."

Last month Bahrain's Sunni rulers crushed weeks of protests led mainly by Shiites, spreading security forces throughout the capital and calling in troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Gulf rulers accused Iran of interfering in Bahrain, where Shiites form the majority.

King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa was in Riyadh on Wednesday night for talks with the Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz that discussed improving ties between the two countries, BNA said.

Saudi Arabia, linked to the island state by a causeway, is seen as a financial lifeline for Bahrain. The king was at Riyadh airport to welcome back King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz after his treatment abroad for illness in February, when analysts say Gulf pressure on Manama was strong to end the protest movement.

The government has launched a security crackdown in recent weeks, arresting hundreds of Shiites and firing Shiite workers from state companies.

It had not previously targeted al Wefaq, which has called for a constitutional monarchy but did not join other groups who chose a more confrontational approach during the protests in calling for the overthrow of the ruling Khalifa family.

Al Wefaq mobilised more than 100,000 protesters during peaceful marches when the government still allowed gatherings.

It won 18 seats in Bahrain's 40-seat elected parliament last year, while complaining of gerrymandered electoral districts to prevent Shiite candidates demanding democratic reform from taking a majority. It resigned its seats in parliament in protest over the government crackdown.

Parliament has little power and the cabinet, appointed by the king, has been headed by the same member of the ruling family for four decades.

"It's reached a stage where they say there are no more moderates, that the entire opposition consists of extremists. This is the wrong message," said Mattar Ibrahim Mattar, a Wefaq former member of parliament.

"The hardliners [in government] never wanted Wefaq to take part in elections and get seats in parliament," he said.

Al Wefaq said in a statement that it had always complied with Bahraini laws and regulations and that it was still committed to a political solution to Bahrain's political crisis.

The severity of the crackdown stunned Bahrain's Shiite majority, who say they have no loyalty to Iran. It also sparked criticism from Iran and Shiite groups such as Hizbollah in Lebanon.

The United States, whose Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain, offered muted criticism of the government's crackdown and analysts say it refrained from pushing Bahrain to ease its security sweeps because of anxieties over interference from Iran, just across the Gulf.