Bahrain's King Hamad has called for a new round of national dialogue, officials said, a move cautiously welcomed by the Shiite-led opposition after shunning earlier invitations to break a political deadlock.
King Hamad's appeal follows last month's call for dialogue by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, as protests continue in the Shiite-majority kingdom despite a heavy-handed crackdown on demonstrations in March 2011.
Following directives by King Hamad, Justice Minister Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa invited "representatives of the political societies and independent members of the political community in Bahrain to resume political discussions," the Information Affairs Authority said late Monday.
It said the topics for the dialogue "will be those pending issues to be agreed upon, aiming to achieve further consensus around the political agenda."
The opposition has repeatedly said it was ready for a meaningful dialogue, but has stuck to its demands for a real constitutional monarchy with an elected prime minister in Bahrain.
Al-Wefaq, the largest Shiite opposition formation, said in December it was ready for dialogue, but it had pulled out of the earlier July 2011 round of such discussions.
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The United States welcomed the king's overture, and urged all sides to "engage constructively" in any future negotiations.
"We are encouraged by the positive responses thus far from some of Bahrain's political groups," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
"We call on all sides to participate fully and to engage constructively in an effort to produce a way ahead that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Bahrainis."
Al-Wefaq and the other main opposition groups stressed their "willingness to participate... in serious political negotiations that meet the aspirations of the people for freedom, dignity and justice."
But they demanded that the two sides agree first on the participants in the talks, as well as their agenda and timetable, while also calling for a referendum on the results or the creation of a constitutional court.
Bahrain has been shaken by unrest since its forces in mid-March 2011 crushed popular Shiite-led protests demanding greater rights and an end to what they said was discrimination by the Sunni royals.
The International Federation for Human Rights says 80 people have been killed since the start of the Arab Spring-inspired uprising on February 14, 2011.