|© AFP Adam Jan|
WASHINGTON (AFP) – The White House said Wednesday it was watching unrest in strategically-placed Bahrain “very closely” and called on the pro-Western kingdom to allow peaceful anti-government protests.
Thousands of Bahrainis chanted for a change of government and a “real constitutional monarchy” after two protesters were killed in clashes with police in the latest scenes of revolt in the Middle East to test a key US ally.
Bahrain serves as headquarters for a pillar of American military power, the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which commands a rotating flotilla of vessels charged with safeguarding oil shipping lanes in the Gulf and countering Iran.
“Bahrain, like all the countries in the region, needs to respect the universal rights of its citizens, their right to protest, their right to have their grievances heard,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“They should refrain from violence on both sides. We are obviously watching events from Bahrain and around the region very closely.
“Our position on all the countries is the same at the universal rights level,” Carney said, as unrest reached Bahrain after reverberating across North Africa and the Middle East, including in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Iran.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama warned all Arab and Middle Eastern rulers that they should get ahead of the wave of protest by moving towards democratic reforms after decades of autocratic rule.
He did not single out individual nations, but many observers saw his remarks as a warning to allies in places like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, where Washington has tolerated undemocratic systems in exchange for stability.
In Bahrain, also an important oil refining center, protesters representing the Shiite majority are trying to secure reform in a nation ruled by Sunni King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, who is close to Saudi Arabia.
After the funeral of the second slain protester, large crowds poured Tuesday on to Manama’s Pearl Square, which demonstrators occupied on Tuesday emulating their counterparts in Cairo’s Tahrir Square where protests triggered the fall of president Hosni Mubarak.
Carney would not be drawn into commenting on whether the protests could have an impact on the US base, which serves as home port for four US minesweepers, as well as the navy’s headquarters operations.
Despite US concern, however, a senior State Department official said on condition of anonymity that he did not believe there were any signs of anti-Americanism in protests by Shiite opposition groups against the government.
Michael O’Hanlon, a Brookings Institution scholar, told AFP that the Fifth Fleet’s presence in Bahrain made the revolt a cause for concern for the United States but he advised cool thinking rather than raising immediate warning flags.
But he also argued that Washington would be anxious that democracy movements in Bahrain and elsewhere are not exploited by its regional foes.
One scenario is a “revolution could essentially be hijacked under the guise of democracy but in fact be serving the interests of a non-democratic regional power” like Iran, particularly because Bahrain has a majority Shiite population, O’Hanlon said.
“One thing Egypt taught us is even things that seem remote can happen and happen fast,” he said, adding that he did not regard it as “implausible” that a Shiite group could take power and take its cues from Iran.
There was also disquiet about Bahrain on Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
Republican Representative Todd Akin, who heads the House Armed Services subcommittee with oversight over US naval power, told AFP that “certainly we are concerned” about demonstrations demanding political change in the Gulf kingdom.
“That concern, to some degree, is focused on the fact that we’re not quite sure what all of these different destabilized political situations are going to mean,” Akin said.
© AFP — Published at Activist Post with license