Talks between Bahrain’s opposition and pro-government groups began aimed at healing deep rifts opened when the state’s Sunni rulers crushed protests led by the majority Shi’ites earlier this year.
The opposition has expressed doubts about whether the national dialogue, decreed by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, can accomplish anything, noting that it only has 35 of the 300 seats at the bargaining table.
Across town, witnesses said some 500 protesters marched from nearby Shi’ite villages towards the Pearl roundabout, the epicentre of mass protests this year, and were dispersed by riot police using tear gas, Reuters reports.
Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Dhahrani, chairman of the dialogue and also a speaker of parliament, told the forum: “We start without conditions or limits, our only condition is accepting one another.”
The government had sought to ease tensions before the start of the dialogue, offering concessions such as the launch of an investigative panel led by Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-American war crimes expert who is also heading a U.N. inquiry into events in Libya.
Bahrain’s Shi’ites took to the streets in February and March to demand political reforms, inspired by uprisings that toppled the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt.
The Sunni rulers crushed Bahrain’s movement with martial law and help from security forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Thirty people are estimated to have died, hundreds were arrested, and thousands lost their jobs.
Hardline Sunnis accused the protesters of pursuing a sectarian agenda backed by the non-Arab Shi’ite power Iran, across the Gulf. Bahrain has historically been a focus for strains between Gulf Sunni monarchies and Iran.
The Gulf Arab kingdom off the coast of Saudi Arabia is the home base of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
A White House statement said U.S. President Barack Obama welcomed the talks and the formation of the panel of inquiry.
“By providing an independent assessment of what happened and identifying those responsible, the Royal Commission will play an essential role in advancing reconciliation, justice, and peace in Bahrain,” the statement said.
The king, hoping to defuse tension, also lifted martial law a month ago and called a dialogue to discuss political, economic, social and legal reforms with “all options” on the table.
After lengthy internal debate, Wefaq, the leading Shi’ite opposition group, decided to join the dialogue, but said it would pull out if the talks did not move towards greater Shi’ite representation in government.
Wefaq says it is under-represented in the forum and that there are too many people to reach any meaningful consensus.
“The whole of Bahrain will be much better if we have an elected government,” said Wefaq spokesman Khalil al-Marzouq.
Dhahrani told participants that any agreed proposals would be taken to the king, who “will pass it on to legal organizations for the necessary implementation.”
Bahrain has an elected assembly but the ruling Al Khalifa family appoints cabinet ministers and the upper house.
Saturday’s discussions were mostly ceremonial, with a recital from the Koran, a speech and presentations. By early afternoon, the main hall was empty.
Most, though not all, Saudi troops are being withdrawn and there are fewer armoured vehicles and tanks on the dusty streets of Manama, although checkpoints still dot the streets.
King Hamad, in a speech televised on the eve of the talks, said: “It will be a true dialogue in every respect and no section of Bahrain’s wide and diverse society will be ignored.”
But many in the Shi’ite majority were lukewarm, arguing it did not meet their core demands of political reform or the release of hundreds still in jail.
“No dialogue without the downfall of the regime,” shouted the protesters near the Pearl roundabout. Others cried: “Down (King) Hamad!”
Security forces cleared the area in March and razed its iconic statue. The roundabout is still sealed off and surrounded by armoured vehicles and barbed wire.
Protesters told Reuters by telephone that they had marched through several villages before they were stopped at a checkpoint on a road leading to the roundabout. Riot police broke up the march with tear gas and sound grenades, they said.
A week ago, eight prominent Shi’ite opposition leaders were sentenced to life in prison. Small protests erupt in many Shi’ite villages at night, which are snuffed out by police with tear gas.