Bahrain begins reform steps snubbed by opposition

October 10, 2011 - 7:35 AM
Mideast Bahrain

Mourners wave a Bahraini flag and shout anti-government slogans Friday, Oct. 7, 2011, as they accompany the casket carrying Ahmed Jaber, 17, during a funeral procession in Abu Saiba, Bahrain, that drew tens of thousands of people and ended in clashes with riot police. Opposition groups claim Jaber was killed by police gunfire. The billboard behind them promotes the upcoming GCC Games. When it was first conceived, the GCC Games were simply seen as an avenue to promote sports among a half-dozen Gulf nations. But for host Bahrain, the kingdom's Sunni monarchy now sees the 12-day competition which starts Tuesday _ the first major sporting event since protests began in February _ as a crucial test for the beleaguered country. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Officials in violence-wracked Bahrain began work Monday on proposed political reforms that include boosting the powers of parliament, but the steps were dismissed by an opposition leader as too little after more than eight months of clashes in the Gulf kingdom.

The package of changes would transfer some new powers to elected lawmakers, but leaves intact the sweeping controls of Sunni rulers. Bahrain's majority Shiites began protests in February seeking more rights and demanding an end to the monarchy's grip on the country's affairs.

The reforms are likely to be approved, but they appear unlikely to ease a crisis that has left about 35 people dead and delivered a serious blow to the economy of the strategic island nation — home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

The official Bahrain News Agency said the prime minister met with government officials to discuss the reform package. The final report will be submitted later for approval to Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

The proposed reforms include allowing parliament to vet Cabinet ministers. They also call for a review of voting districts — which Shiite leaders claim are gerrymandered to undercut Shiite political strength.

Shiite's account for about 70 percent of Bahrain's population, but say they have faced decades of discrimination such as being blocked from top political and security posts.

The main Shiite political party, Al Wefaq, walked out of national reconciliation talks in July. Months earlier, their 18 members in parliament had resigned en masse to protest crackdowns that included hundreds of arrests and Shiite workers purged from jobs.

The Wefaq leader, Sheik Ali Salman, scoffed at the proposed reforms as doing nothing to reduce the powers of the 200-year-old dynasty. He said the measures "keep Bahrain as a dictatorship, not a democratic state."

"We can go and ask the people of Bahrain," he told reporters. "Do they want a referendum to decide whether to have an elected government or not?"