|Thousands of opposition activists gathered for a rally at Diraz on Friday as al-Wefaq made its announcement [EPA]
Bahrain's largest opposition bloc will take part in reconciliation talks with the government beginning on Saturday, despite a harsh crackdown on pro-reform protests, its leader has announced.
Sheikh Ali Salman, al-Wefaq's leader, made the announcement at a rally of tens of thousands of supporters on Friday evening in Diraz, an opposition stronghold northwest of Manama, the capital.
The decision by the largest Shia bloc to join the so called "national dialogue" lends credibility to the process, which has been criticised by activists for not including key members of the ruling family and government.
"No one cares for us, no one is listening to us. We will go to the dialogue, but if the dialogue does not deliver what the people need, we will withdraw," Salman told cheering supporters, many of whom were waving Bahraini flags.
"We will go to the dialogue, but if the dialogue does not deliver what the people need, we will withdraw"
Sheikh Ali Salman, al-Wefaq leader
The audience responded to the news by shouting: "We want the freedom of all our prisoners!"
The rally was held in a crowded area, with some pro-reform activists seen crammed on rooftops, as a government helicopter flew overhead.
The Reuters news agency, citing sources within the bloc, reported that there were intense debates over whether the group would lose credibility if it joined the government-initiated talks.
Ahead of the talks, the country's government offered some concessions, establishing a panel to investigate deaths and arrests during the security crackdown on pro-reform protests in the country.
It also said it planned to withdraw most Saudi troops, who had earlier been called in to help quell the Shia unrest.
Sheik Isa Qassim, a prominent Shia cleric, termed the concessions acceptable as initial steps towards wider reform during a Friday sermon in Diraz.
Limited opposition seats
Isa Abdulrahman, the spokesman for the national dialogue, said it offered an opportunity for reform while easing tensions between the country's majority Shias and minority Sunnis, a community from which the ruling family comes.
Shias make up about 70 per cent of Bahrain's 525,000 citizens, but they say they face systematic discrimination and are blocked from top government and political posts.
"The goal is to reach a consensus with everyone, it's not about a vote. This is about bringing together all elements of Bahraini society to heal this nation so that it can move forward to a brighter future," he told Reuters.
Critics, however, point to the fact that only 35 of the 300 seats at the forum are reserved for opposition groups.
"We looked at the other names, and so many of them we know are with the government. How is this going to be a dialogue?" asked one al-Wefaq official, who asked not to be named.
King promises inclusion
In a speech televised late on Friday, King Hamad Ibn Isa al-Khalifa said that the dialogue process would be inclusive.
"It will be a true dialogue in every respect and no section of Bahrain's wide and diverse society will be ignored," he said.
The King lifted emergency law on June 1 imposed in March after the protests, and last week some of the Saudi troops were pulled out.
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However, dozens of activists remain incarcerated and face trial, and last month eight activists were handed down life sentences.
The tiny island nation is home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, and, as such, Bahrain is a key regional ally for the United States.
The Bahraini government has accused Iran, an overwhelmingly Shia-majority country, of stoking the unrest in order to extend its influence.
The US, meanwhile, has consistently pushed for talks between the opposition and the ruling monarchy, and did not strongly criticise the country when it called in troops from the UAE and Saudi Arabia to quell protests.
At least 32 people have died in unrest since the protests began in early February, inspired by similar uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.