Bahrain opposition plots strategy before talks

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Manama, Feb 19 (AP) Bahrain''s opposition leadersgathered today to examine offers for talks by Bahrain''s rulersafter nearly a week of protests and deadly clashes that havesharply divided the strategic Gulf nation.

The streets in the tiny island kingdom were calmer asefforts shifted toward possible political haggling overdemands for the monarchy to give up its near-absolute controlover key policies and positions.

But bitterness and tensions still run deep afterseesaw battles that included riot police opening fire onprotesters trying to reclaim a landmark square and thenpulling back to allow them to occupy the site. At least sevenpeople have been killed and hundreds injured since the Arabwave for change reached the Gulf on February 14.

Bahrain''s rulers appear desperate to open a politicaldialogue after sharp criticism from Western allies andstatements by overseers of next month''s Formula One race thatthe unrest could force the cancellation of Bahrain''s premierinternational event.

Bahrain holds particular importance to Washington asthe host of the US Navy''s Fifth Fleet, which is the main USmilitary counterweight to Iran''s efforts to expand its armedforces and reach into the Gulf.

Bahrain''s ruling Sunni dynasty has strong backing fromother Gulf Arab leaders, who fear that Shiite powerhouse Irancould gain further footholds through the uprising led byBahrain''s Shiite majority.

A leader of the main Shiite political bloc,Abdul-Jalil Khalil, said the opposition is considering themonarchy''s offer for dialogue, but he noted that no directtalks were yet under way.

The protest demands include abolishing the monarchy''sprivileges to set policies and appoint all key political postsand address long-standing claims of discrimination and abusesagainst Shiites, who represents about 70 per cent of Bahrain''s525,000 citizens.

No violence was reported Sunday, but many parts of thecountry were paralyzed by a general strike called byopposition groups and workers'' unions.

At state-run Gulf Air, union leaders urged workers tojoin the strike. But an e-mail to employees by the airline''sdirector warned that any no-shows could face dismissal. Thecarrier said no flights have been disrupted.

At the Sanabis Intermediate Girls School, however,about 10 women teachers sat outside the empty school yard in asign of support for the strike.

"We are on strike to support our fellow people in thesquare," said Samira Ali, 40, a science teacher. "We feelemboldened with our cause after blood was spilled. I want areal constitutional monarchy where my voice is heard and mymessage reaches to the government." (AP)

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