More than 10,000 demonstrators have joined Bahrain's first public rally in months as the Gulf nation's main Shia political party shows its resolve after fierce crackdowns on protests for greater political rights.
Security forces stayed back from the crowds on Saturday in a mostly Shia area northwest of the capital Manama. Police helicopters passed overhead. There were no reports of clashes.
"With our blood and soul, we sacrifice for Bahrain," the crowds chanted.
Bahrain's Sunni leaders allowed the rally on Saturday less than two weeks after lifting martial law-style rules imposed to crush protests for broader political freedom. At least 31 people have died in the unrest since February.
Bahrain appointed its parliament speaker to lead a national dialogue in the wake of the crackdown, the state news agency said on Saturday, but the opposition said the crown prince should lead the reform process.
Khalifa al-Dhahrani, speaker of the Council of Representatives, said he hoped to bring "all parties concerned with matters of the state" into the dialogue.
He said the talks would "accelerate the pace of reform towards further development in various fields that will meet the expectations of all citizens," Bahrain News Agency cited him as saying on Saturday.
The leading Shia Muslim opposition group Wefaq objected to the appointment.
"The real dialogue that needs to take place must be between the king or the crown prince and the opposition because what we are discussing is a pivotal issue of difference between the ruling family and the people," Khalil al-Marzooq, a Wefaq leader, said.
"The call for dialogue was meant to complete the one which the crown prince had started previously. It raises a lot of questions about the extent of the seriousness of this dialogue in looking for a political solution that will meet the demands of the people," he said.
Marzooq said of Dhahrani's appointment: "We respect him but he has already taken his position. He has previously said that he objects to discussion of reforms over elections, constitutional amendments and the issue of discrimination.
"We call for the crown prince to lead these talks ... to pull this country out of the bottle neck which it is stuck in."
The government imposed emergency law in March and brought in troops from neighbouring Sunni-ruled countries to quash the protests. Thousands of people were detained or dismissed from government jobs for taking part in the protests.
The emergency law has since been revoked and many detainees have been released.
On Friday, Bahrain News Agency reported a labour ministry order that 571 people who had been sacked had been given their jobs back "for lack of legal foundations justifying their dismissal".
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa announced that a national dialogue would begin on July 1 and would be open to reform in all areas. Opposition groups have complained the lack of parameters made it difficult to know what options for reform were really on the table.
Shia have long complained of discrimination in jobs and housing, as well as over the gerrymandering of district lines for elections in favour of the Sunni population.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies