In Bahrain, a key opposition leader signals openness to compromise

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 9:52 PM

MANAMA, BAHRAIN - A day after protesters chanting anti-government slogans packed downtown Manama, a key hard-line opposition leader said Saturday that he would be willing to make peace with the royal family - but only if it makes major concessions toward democracy.

Otherwise, protesters will look for new leaders, said Hassan Mushaima, a leader of the anti-government Haq society, in an interview.

When he returned to Bahrain from self-imposed exile in Britain a week ago, some feared that Mushaima would take an uncompromising stand against the government, fragmenting the opposition.

But in the interview, he appeared to leave the door open to an eventual settlement with the Khalifa royal family.

Protesters "are looking for another regime . . . which can give them freedom," Mushaima said. "If the people agreed with finishing our relationship with the family of the monarchy . . . I am going with the people."

But, he said, "if most of the people agreed for a constitutional monarchy, I'll go with them."

He said that for him to go along with a plan to keep the royal family in place, he would want the current government to resign and for the royals to accept a new democratic constitution that would allow for the parliament to appoint the prime minister.

On Thursday, some moderate opposition groups announced that they would meet for negotiations with Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa. It may have been a step forward in achieving a resolution to the unrest, which started almost three weeks ago, but it is unclear how many protesters each opposition group speaks for.

Protesters have turned Pearl Square, in central Manama, into a bustling miniature city of tents, some of them luxuriously appointed with satellite TV and comfortable rugs. When Mushaima speaks at the square, as he has on several evenings since his return, he is greeted with adulation by many in the crowd.

On Saturday afternoon, shortly before thousands of protesters formed a human chain between Pearl Square and the country's main Sunni mosque, the Ministry of the Interior announced that it planned to oversee the creation of 20,000 jobs. It was not immediately apparent what the jobs would be, or who would be hired.

Mushaima said in the interview that he was grateful that President Obama had intervened to pressure King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to stop firing on protesters after seven were killed in the initial days of the conflict. But, he said, the U.S. government should get on the side of the protesters rather than support the crown prince's offer of discussions, as Obama did Sunday.

"If America does not stand with us, it doesn't mean that the people will stop," he said. But "they will hate the government of America more than before."

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