Bahrain's king invited opposition parties to restart stalled talks on Monday in the latest effort to break a political deadlock in the Gulf Arab state beset by unrest.
Western-allied Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based as a bulwark against Iran, has been in political ferment since protests led by majority Shi'ite Muslims demanding democratic change in the Sunni-led monarchy erupted in early 2011.
Opposition groups had given a guarded welcome to a similar call for talks from Bahrain's Crown Prince made in December - though it did not lead to any negotiations. The formal invitation from King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa will carry extra clout.
King Hamad issued a directive authorising the justice ministry to invite "representatives of the political societies and independent members of the political community" to resume a national dialogue, the kingdom's Information Affairs Authority said.
Topics on the agenda would be agreed later but the aim was to "achieve further consensus around the political agenda," it added, without going into further detail.
The ruling Al-Khalifa family used martial law and help from Gulf neighbours to put down the 2011 revolt but violence has resumed.
Protesters and police still clash regularly and rights groups have accused the government of continuing to crush dissent and target opposition protest leaders.
"We are waiting to see which side refuses the invitation to sit at the table of dialogue ... We are keen on reaching a final and comprehensive national consensus," Information Minister Samira Rajab was quoted as saying by the state BNA news agency.
Talks on finding a way out of the crisis were held in July 2011, but ended inconclusively after the country's largest opposition group, Wefaq, pulled out complaining it had not been allowed a big enough representation at the negotiations.