Eleven weeks after it called in foreign troops to crush an anti-government uprising, Bahrain announced Tuesday that it is ending the country’s state of emergency and inviting opponents to join wide-ranging talks on political reform.
The announcement by Bahrain’s royal palace came amid reports of a pullback of troops and tanks from some parts of the capital, Manama, which has remained under military control since the start of the crackdown March 15.
“We are seeking to fairly balance out the need to maintain law and order with the desire for freedoms,” Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa said in a statement released by Bahrain’s official news service.
But in a separate statement, the country’s Justice Ministry warned that the monarchy would not tolerate a return of the mass protests that paralyzed the tiny island country, which serves as home base for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Justice officials warned of severe consequences for any who acted against the nation’s “security and unity.”
The ending of the country’s state of emergency clears the way for the departure of foreign troops and the transfer of authority for civil order from the army to Bahraini police. Although few details were given publicly, officials close to the Bahraini royal family said the military withdrawal would include the thousands of troops from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries that were dispatched to Bahrain in response to an appeal from King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
On Tuesday, the monarch told Bahraini journalists that in July the nation would begin a “comprehensive, serious dialogue, without conditions,” about national reconciliation.
“Despite the fact that what has occurred recently in Bahrain has hurt us deeply, we remain determined to honor our commitments before God and our people,” the state-run Bahrain News Agency quoted the king as saying.
Some of Bahrain’s leading opposition groups have previously refused such negotiations, insisting that the government should first enact political reforms. At least 30 protesters were killed and hundreds were arrested in the weeks-long crackdown, which also included new restrictions on political parties and independent media.
In Washington, the State Department welcomed the announcement of political talks. “We view it as a positive step,” said spokesman Mark Toner, reiterating calls for Bahraini officials to “address the legitimate aspirations of the people.”
The Obama administration’s repeated criticism of the crackdown has been a source of friction with Persian Gulf allies, including Saudi Arabia, which contends that Iran is seeking to exploit Bahrain’s political unrest.