1. Headline
  1. Headline
Image: Protesters in Bahrain
Hassan Ammar  /  AP
Bahrain's Sunni rulers have opened talks with the Shiite opposition they crushed.
updated 7/2/2011 5:57:01 PM ET 2011-07-02T21:57:01

Riot police in Bahrain fired tear gas at anti-government protesters denouncing reconciliation talks between the Gulf kingdom's rulers and the Shiite-led opposition on Saturday just hours after the dialogue began.

The renewed unrest — described by witnesses — underlines the deep tensions on the island nation after more than four months of harsh security crackdowns by the Western-allied monarchy.

It also points to the political risks for Bahrain's biggest Shiite party, Al Wefaq, which decided to join the U.S.-encouraged talks despite widespread anger among the majority Shiites — who claim they suffer systematic discrimination at the hands of the Sunni dynasty ruling Bahrain.

The protesters gathered near a landmark square in Manama, which was the epicenter of the Shiite uprising for greater rights that began in February. The witnesses said several hundred marchers chanted "No dialogue" just hours after a ceremony to open the talks in the strategic nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

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The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of harassment by authorities.

There were no immediate reports of injuries during the demonstrations that started after a funeral for a protester, who died on Thursday in a military hospital from injuries sustained during the unrest in March.

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The death of 30-year-old protester, Majid Ahmed Mohammed, brings to 32 the number of those killed since February. Bahrain's Shiites account for 70 percent of the population, but say they face second-class status such as being effectively frozen out of top political and military posts.

Hundreds of opposition supporters, activists and others have been taken into custody and many other perceived protest backers have been purged from jobs and universities.

Washington has strongly pushed for dialogue in Bahrain. The Sunni monarchy has made token concessions ahead of the so-called "national dialogue," including sanctioning an international investigation that will include probes into the conduct of security forces during the revolt.

The White House said Saturday that it welcomes the formation of a commission of inquiry into the events and the launch of the political dialogue. "We urge all Bahrainis to seize this opportunity to forge a more just future together," said the statement.

But the government has not relented on opposition demands to free all detainees and clear others convicted of protest-linked charges, including eight activists sentenced to life in prison last month.

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Parliament Speaker Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Dhahrani opened the forum Saturday by hailing the gathering as "a historic opportunity for all of us to overcome this critical stage of the nation's history through dialogue."

He said the goal is to bring "together different points of view to develop common visions" and added that the Sunni rulers are at the talks "without preconditions."

After a 45-minute ceremonial session, the approximately 300 participants adjourned. The talks are to last until the end of July, with delegates meeting three times a week.

Al Wefaq's participation "adds an important voice of Bahrain's political opposition to a process that has the potential to serve as a vehicle for reform and reconciliation," Toner added.

Al Wefaq's three delegates who attended Saturday's session, were not optimistic the dialogue will lead to meaningful reforms.

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"It started as a monologue," said one of the three, Bushra al-Hindi. "The agenda has been previously set by the government in order to exclude talks about critical issues, such as moving along with a process that will reshape the country into a constitutional monarchy."

Al Wefaq's leader, Sheik Ali Salman, had told supporters on Friday that his group will stick to its calls for the Sunni monarchy to loosen the grip on power and allow people to elect a government.

Delegates from Bahrain's secular opposition party, Al Waad, also attended the talks. They held a picture of their leader, Ibrahim Sharif — the most prominent Sunni politician who has been imprisoned along with 20 other opposition leaders for plotting to overthrow Bahrain's 200-year-old monarchy.

Amid the crackdowns, Al Wefaq staged a mass resignation of its 18 lawmakers in the 40-member lower house of parliament. Two former lawmakers are in custody and on trial on anti-state crimes. Al Wefaq said one of them, Jawad Firooz, was listed on the party's five-member delegation to the talks although he didn't attend Saturday's opening session because he remains in detention.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: March

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  1. Bahraini Shiites women attend the funeral of Bahiya al-Aradi, holding portraits of her, in central Manama on Monday, March 22. Aradi, 51, went missing on March 16 evening, and a car that she drove was found the day after in al-Qadam village, west of Manama, with bloodstains on the driver's seat. She was pronounced dead on March 21 after being shot in the head. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Bahraini opposition protesters carry the body of Abdulrasool al-Hajiri during his burial ceremony in Buri village, north of the capital, Manama, on Monday, March 21. Relatives accused the military of executing al-Hajiri after grabbing him at a checkpoint outside the village. Meanwhile, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa praised Saudi-led forces that he called in to help quell unprecedented unrest. (Mazen Mahdi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, right, meets with officers of the Gulf Cooperation Council's Peninsula Shield force late on March 20 in Manama. The monarch said Bahrain has foiled a "foreign plot" to target Gulf countries, in a possible reference to Iran, after security forces crushed Shiite-led unrest, the state news agency reported. (BNA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. An injured Pakistani man takes refuge at a Pakistan club in Manama on March 19. He said that he was attacked by Shiite Bahrainis in a Shiite neighborhood on March 19. According to Pakistani men, Shiites have been attacking Asian nationals, accusing them of taking away their jobs. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Young women look at welts on the body of a young man walking through the streets of Daih, a Shiite suburb of Manama, on March 19. The youth said he was returning from nearby Sanabis, another Shiite area, where he said he and several others were beaten by riot police. (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Bahraini soldiers with the portrait of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on their armored personnel carrier are seen at a checkpoint near Pearl Square in Manama on March 19. (Sergey Ponomarev / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. The sisters of activist Ahmed Farhan mourn over his body in Sitra on March 18. Farhan, 29, was killed March 15 when police cracked down on opposition protesters in the town. (James Lawler Duggan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. An unidentified man shows the bullet that was allegedly pulled from the head of killed opposition protester Ahmed Farhan before his burial on March 18. (Mazen Mahdi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Shiite mourners wrap the body of Ahmed Farhan before his funeral in Sitra on March 18. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Shiite mourners carry the coffin of Ahmed Farhan during his funeral in Sitra on March 18, as thousands of anti-regime activists defied martial law to renew their pro-democracy protests. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A Shiite woman stands in front of the national flag as she watches the funeral procession of Ahmed Farhan on March 18. (Sergey Ponomarev / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A combination of pictures show the statue in the center of Pearl Square in Manama being torn down on March 18. The authorities demolished the statue, focal point and symbol of weeks of pro-democracy protests in the Gulf island kingdom. Drills and diggers cut away at the six bases of the statue for hours, until it collapsed into a mound of rubble and steel bars. Trucks stood by to take away the debris. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. People walk past a car damaged with shotgun pellets in Sitra on March 17. (James Lawler Duggan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The Bahraini National Guard arrest a man who was later identified as journalist Alex Delmar-Morgan of the Wall Street Journal as he walked towards Pearl Square in Manama on March 16. Several hours later, Morgan was released. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Anti-government protestors gesture towards military vehicles near Pearl Square in Manama on March 16 after police killed at least two protesters and wounded dozens more as they assaulted a peaceful protest camp in the capital's Pearl Square, an opposition party official said. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Black smoke billows from burning tents in Pearl Square in Manama on March 16 after soldiers and riot police used tear gas and armored vehicles to drive out hundreds of anti-government protesters occupying the square. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Black smoke billows in Pearl Square on March 16 after a full-scale assault on the protesters occupying the square was launched at daybreak by soldiers and police. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces move in to Pearl Square to remove anti-government protesters on March 16. The GCC is a union comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Doctors form a human chain at Salmaniya Hospital in Manama fearing an attack by riot police on March 15. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A man from the Shiite Muslim village of Sitra, south of the Bahraini capital Manama is brought to the Salmaniya hospital late on March 15 after he was shot with pellets of buckshot, as the king imposed a state of emergency after bringing in foreign troops to help quell anti-regime protests. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Thousands of anti-government protesters march to the Saudi embassy in Manama on March 15, a day after a Saudi-led military force entered the country to defend its Sunni monarchy from a Shiite-led protest movement. The yellow sign center foreground reads: "The Saudi army came to protect the illegitimate government, not the aggrieved, legitimate nation" and the banner at right says: "The Saudi army's entry to Bahrain is an occupation we will never accept." (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Female anti-government protesters gather outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Manama on Tuesday, March 15. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Saudi Arabian troops cross the causeway leading to Bahrain on March 14. About 1,000 Saudi soldiers entered Bahrain to protect government facilities, a Saudi official source said, a day after mainly Shi'ite protesters overran police and blocked roads. (Reuters TV ) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Protesters confront riot police on a flyover near the Pearl Square in Manama on March 13. Bahraini riot police fired thick clouds of tear gas and pushed back protesters who blocked a main thoroughfare leading to the Bahrain Financial Harbour, a key business district in the Gulf Arab region's banking center. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Protesters set up makeshift roadblocks in Manama on March 13. Bahraini police clashed with demonstrators trying to occupy Manama's banking center, as protests spread from a peaceful sit-in to the heart of the strategic Gulf state's business district. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A protester gestures in front of riot police on an overpass near Pearl roundabout in Manama on March 13. (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Opposition protesters take cover after being fired upon by police during an opposition march on Riffa, south of the capital Manama, on March 11. Police clashed with protesters on the outskirts of Riffa after pro-government supporters were able to pass through police lines and attack the opposition march, leaving hundreds injured according to the health ministry, mainly due to tear-gas inhalation. (Mazen Mahdi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Protesters holding signs that read: "Down With Al-Khalifa" (left and right) stand in front of the U.S. embassy during a demonstration where they accused the U.S. government of supporting dictatorships, in Manama on March 7. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A protester kisses a police officer after being told to clear the way for a female driver in Manama on March 3. The protester was blocking the road during an anti-government rally. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Anti-government protesters gesture in front of the main gate of the Interior Ministry during demonstrations in Manama on March 2. Protests in Bahrain are starting to make forays away from the central square in Manama and into different parts of the city. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Anti-government protesters march toward the Pearl roundabout, March 1, in the capital of Manama. Tens of thousands of Bahrainis, largely Shiites, participated in the march urging unity among Sunnis and Shiites in demanding political reform. (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: TOPSHOTS

Bahraini Shiites women attend t
    Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (31) 2011 Bahrain uprising - March
  2. Image: Bahraini protesters sit and rest in their tent at Pearl Square in Bahraini capital of Manama
    Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters
    Slideshow (63) 2011 Bahrain uprising - February

Video: Violent crackdown on Bahrain protesters

  1. Closed captioning of: Violent crackdown on Bahrain protesters

    >>> and as we've been reporting, as the world's attention has been focused on the japan disaster, some of the arab nations are heating up again. while gadhafi has been gobbling up territory, taking it back from the rebels, bearing down on their head quarter city of benghazi, in bahrain protesters are rising up again. that government is so concerned they asked the saudis to send troops. nbc's john ray is in bahrain with more on the crackdown.

    >> reporter: the protesters tents burn, all hope for peaceful change disappearing in thick plumes of smoke. the government regained control, cleansing it says the capital of criminals and saboteurs. nobody knows how many have been killed or injured today but the protesters have been thrown out of the square. as military helicopters hovered menacingly overhead, we came across people sheltering in a side street , showing us the tear gas canisters and rubber bullets it endured. security forces blocked off the city's main hospital. at another clinic, we met a young woman shot in the shoulder and in the hand. the protests have pitted the them against the rulers. they have instituted martial law and called in military reinforcements from saudi arabia . a move condemned today by their ally, the united states , and i iran, their rival power in the gulf. john ray , nbc news, bahrain .

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