Bahrain Sunni says majority Shi’ite opposition must change leaders

(An anti-government protester waves a Bahraini flag during a rally in Manama March 3, 2011/James Lawler Duggan)

Bahrain’s opposition must change its leadership for the divided Gulf Arab state to move on with political reconciliation after crushing a pro-democracy movement led by majority Shi’ites, a Sunni cleric said on Saturday. Sheikh Abdullatif Al-Mahmoud said the democracy movement, which began in February when protesters inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt occupied a roundabout in Manama, had been hijacked by Shi’ite opposition leaders with a sectarian agenda who were in contact with Iran’s clerical leadership.

Mahmoud led a team of Sunni negotiators coordinating with Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa in talks with the opposition days before Saudi troops entered Bahrain to help the government break up the protest movement and arrest its leaders in mid-March. He said Shi’ite leaders, headed by Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the largest opposition group Wefaq, had overplayed their hand by trying to marginalise the royal family in the talks on political reform and accused them of taking orders from Iran — a familiar Sunni charge against group.

“We consider there to be three forces: the system (royal family), the Sunnis and the Shi’ites, and political and constitutional reform needs the consent of all of them,” he said in an interview. “The problem is that the political Shi’ite movement has not conducted a reappraisal up to now. We don’t want to reject Shi’ites or their political groups,” he said. “What is needed is that they reform themselves then present themselves again to society. In my view they will change their political leaderships, especially Wefaq.”

Twenty-one opposition leaders — seven of whom are abroad — are on trial in military court on charges of seeking to overthrow the government. Salman is not one of them, as the authorities have left senior Shi’ite clerics alone. Sunni political groups are demanding the men be sentenced to death and the government refrain from issuing amnesties. The leaders on trial are not all Shi’ite. They include Ibrahim Sharif, a Sunni who heads the secular Waad group.

Bahrain Shi’ite leader backs the royal family, rejects alleged Iran links

(Head of Al Wafaq Society, Sheikh Ali Salman, speaks during an anti-government protest at Bahrian's Foreign Ministry in Manama March 4, 2011/James Lawler Duggan)

The leader of Bahrain’s main Shi’ite opposition party said on Sunday his goal was to help bring political reform, rejecting accusations of taking orders from Iran or seeking to install Shi’ite religious rule. Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the opposition group Wefaq, said his party supported the Al Khalifa family as rulers and wanted to help the government with constitutional reforms.

“We said we want a constitutional monarchy, not a republic. We are for a gradual move to a democratic system, so we are not against the ruling family,” Salman told Reuters in an interview. “We have national demands that have nothing to do with Iran. We are proud of being a sensible, mature and progressive political movement that doesn’t need to take instructions from Iran or any other country.”