Middle East

Bahrain opposition seeks UK support as tension simmers

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Media captionSheikh Ali Salman: "I believe that we need more from Britain and the United States"

The leader of Bahrain's main opposition party has called on the UK government to act as a mediator with the ruling al-Khalifa family if progress towards democracy remains stalled in the troubled Gulf state.

In a meeting with the BBC, Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of the al-Wefaq party, said western countries, including Britain and the US, needed to do more to prevent Bahrain falling prey to extremism by both sides.

"I believe that we need more from Britain and the US to achieve, on the ground, the change to democracy without any delay. The advantage is for everyone - Bahrainis, Americans, British," he said.

His call came as both the ruling family and the political opposition said they wanted to resolve Bahrain's difficulties by dialogue. Yet, in practice, the two remain far apart, with ongoing criticism of the country's human rights record.

This has been my fourth visit to Bahrain since the Arab Spring uprisings began last year and, despite the calm on the streets in the heart of the capital, Manama, it is still a deeply divided and troubled place with tension simmering in the restive villages that ring the capital.

Dozens have been killed in clashes since protests erupted in February 2011 and Bahrain has been heavily criticised recently by human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Al-Wefaq says that if anything, human rights in Bahrain are deteriorating, with a recent blanket ban on protests.

There have however been some reforms, following an international commission of inquiry last year. There are now CCTV cameras in police stations and prisons, and police are given extensive training in public order.

Ruined reputation

But, when clashes do occur, they are growing increasingly violent. There have been cases of young protesters getting hit in the face at close range by police shotguns, while policemen and expatriate workers have been seriously injured and even killed by crude bombs planted by hardline opposition activists.

Shopkeepers and businesspeople despair of the violence that has ruined Bahrain's reputation for peaceful co-existence.

For Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of the mainstream opposition party, al-Wefaq, which is pressing for democracy and an elected government, these are difficult times.

To many Sunni loyalists who support the ruling Sunni family, Sheikh Ali is something of a hate figure.

They see as him and his party as a Trojan horse for Iranian influence over Bahrain's affairs, something he strongly denies.

Yet to many of the Shia activists out demonstrating and clashing with riot police, Al-Wefaq is seen as too moderate, too reasonable.

Unlike those hardcore protesters it is not, for example, publicly calling for the ruling Al-Khalifa family to de deposed.

Instead, it seeks fairer electoral boundaries and a constitutional monarchy where King Hamad continues to rule as head of state but where the population can elect their own prime minister and cabinet with full executive powers.

Image caption Sheikh Ali Salman acknowledges replacing Bahrain's unelected prime minister will take time

Clad in the traditional white garment of the Gulf, Sheikh Ali Salman stirs his sweet tea and winces when I ask him about the gap between what the opposition seeks and what the government is offering.

He knows that replacing the unelected prime minister, in power for over 40 years, is unlikely to happen soon.

But with back-channel contacts remaining open between the crown prince and al-Wefaq, there are hopes, however distant, of some sort of breakthrough in the next few weeks.

If that fails, says Sheikh Ali, he would like to see Britain step in to mediate.

The alternative, he says, is grim.

"We cannot have hardliners on both sides playing and destroying this country".