Bahrain's top cleric slams reconciliation talks

By the Associated Press | July 8, 2011 | 10:29 AM EDT

FILE - In this THursday, April 28, 2011 file photo, schoolboys display Saudi flags and headbands thanking Saudi King Abdullah while sitting at a bus stop in Hamad Town, Bahrain, west of the capital of Manama, Bahrain. After four months of Shiite-led protests and harsh crackdowns, Saudi Arabia has become the protector, patron and political gatekeeper for Bahrain's Sunni monarchy in the Gulf leadership's front-line fight against the Arab Spring.(AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Bahrain's top Shiite cleric on Friday criticized reconciliation talks between the Shiite-led opposition and the kingdom's Sunni rulers, accusing the monarchy of using the U.S.-supported dialogue to delay democratic reforms.

The remarks by Sheik Isa Qassim underline the deep tensions in the tiny, but strategically important nation, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, after five months of pro-democracy protests and harsh crackdowns on the Shiite majority pressing for more freedoms and rights.

The cleric delivered a sermon Friday in the opposition stronghold of Diraz, nortwest of the capital, Manama.

He said the government-organized talks, which started last week, are meaningless since they don't take into account the urgency of the people's demand for change.

"The people sacrifice so much for reform, and they (the rulers) talk about the need for gradual change," the cleric said. "They want to give reform in small doses while inflicting massive injustice."

At least 32 people have been killed and hundreds of opposition supporters and activists have been taken into custody since Bahrain imposed martial law in March to quell dissent. Many other perceived protest backers have been purged from jobs and universities.

Bahrain's Shiites account for about 70 percent of the kingdom's population, but they claim systematic discrimination including being effectively blocked from top military and political posts. Their revolt in February — inspired by wider Arab uprisings — have been by far the biggest challenge to any Gulf ruler in decades.

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

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.

Bahrain's largest Shiite opposition party, Al Wefaq, reluctantly joined the talks. The party later threatened to pull out if its demand for an elected government isn't on the agenda of the talks, set to last until the end of the month.

"This dialogue process is twisted and the way it is conducted indicates that there is no meaningful substance," the cleric said. "The aim is to delay reforms and democracy."