As Obama sides with protesters, new Mideast posture emerges

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 15, 2011 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he'd told U.S. allies as well as foes in the Middle East that they must "get out ahead of" growing demands for reform, or risk the fates of the deposed presidents of Egypt and Tunisia.

As an unprecedented wave of street protests continued to spread, notably in the strategic Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, Obama used a news conference to lay down the first outlines of a broader U.S. response, now that it seems clear that the turmoil will extend well beyond the 18-day revolution that toppled Egypt's Hosni Mubarak.

He defended his handling of Mubarak's downfall, acknowledged that prospects for Arab-Israeli peace talks could be complicated and had tough words for Iran's leaders, who've responded harshly to a reborn protest movement in that country.

Obama said his message to leaders across the Middle East was that "the world is changing, that you have a young, vibrant generation ... that is looking for greater opportunity, and that if you are governing these countries, you've got to get out ahead of change. You can't be behind the curve."

Privately, senior U.S. officials acknowledged that the White House and State Department are still struggling to adapt to events in the Middle East, where the dynamic seems to change daily and varies from country to country.

The officials, who insisted on anonymity in order to speak more frankly, said the protests that were raging from Algeria to Yemen presented perils as well as opportunities for U.S. foreign policy.

The perils seemed clear Tuesday, as the most vigorous protests occurred in Bahrain, headquarters to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet; and Yemen, the base of an al Qaida affiliate that's planned attacks on the United States.

If Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is overthrown, "the likelihood of some really bad elements coming to power is real," one senior U.S. official said.

In Bahrain, thousands of protesters occupied a main square in the capital, Manama, setting up tents, spreading blankets and smoking water pipes in a peaceful escalation of a drive for reform energized by the pro-democracy uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, said a witness who was reached by telephone.

"I can't believe this is happening," said the witness, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity out of security concerns. "These are young people and they are without fear."

The occupation of Pearl Square, a giant traffic circle, followed security forces' fatal shooting early Tuesday morning of a member of a funeral procession for a protester who was killed in clashes Monday.

In a rare televised appeal for calm, King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa expressed condolences for the deaths. The protesters are demanding a democratically elected government — the ruling dynasty maintains a lock on the Cabinet — along with the release of political prisoners, greater employment opportunities and other concessions. They've refrained from demanding the king's ouster.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. was concerned about the violence in Bahrain, and he urged the government to follow through on promises to investigate the deaths and take legal action against unjustified use of force. "We call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence," he said in a statement.

Clashes flared for a fifth day in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, between hundreds of protesters demanding the ouster of Saleh, who has U.S. backing, and the police and government supporters.

Obama in recent weeks has dropped his earlier caution about promoting democracy in the Arab world and has voiced U.S. support for peaceful protest movements.

"My message, I think, to demonstrators going forward is: Your aspirations for greater opportunity, for the ability to speak your mind, for a free press, those are absolutely aspirations we support," he said.

The bolder U.S. approach has unnerved many U.S. allies in the Middle East, as well as other nations.

"I believe it is counterproductive to encourage, to impose democracy of some specific pattern," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a visit to London, Reuters reported. "We have had more than one revolution in Russia, and we believe we don't need to impose revolutions on others."

A second U.S. official said the Obama administration understood that it would have to act more forcefully in promoting a call for democratic reform and human rights that the president issued in a speech in April 2009 in Cairo.

"I think you will continue to see gradual movement in that direction," said the official, who asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak for the record. "There is a sense that we are at the beginning of a time where will need to take a look at our policies."

The U.S. government has offered assistance to Egypt and Tunisia as they attempt transitions to democracy. In a phone call with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq indicated that a request for such aid could be forthcoming, Crowley said.

In Yemen, the protesters, mostly students, gathered at Sanaa University and began marching toward Saleh's palace. "After Mubarak, oh, Ali," protesters chanted, using Saleh's first name.

Police and Saleh supporters blocked the way, igniting clashes in which the sides exchanged volleys of rocks. Several people, including an opposition lawmaker, reportedly were injured.

Saleh's office announced that the president, who's ruled the small, impoverished nation at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula for 32 years, "has decided to open his office" and engage in dialogue with "all groups for the interest of the nation."

The announcement came a day after opposition groups retracted an agreement to hold talks with the authoritarian regime on their demand for democratic reforms before new elections.

Saleh has been striving to defuse the protests, seeking to enlist the support of tribal leaders, especially from districts around the capital. He also has announced that neither he nor his son will compete in the 2013 presidential elections.

(McClatchy special correspondent Nasser Arrabyee contributed to this article from Sanaa, Yemen.)

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