Mideast violence spreads to home port of U.S. 5th Fleet

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 17, 2011 

MANAMA, Bahrain — The toll of dead and injured from an overnight attack on peaceful protesters in Bahrain mounted Thursday, and with threats of new unrest in this strategic emirate, the United States faced a painful new foreign-policy dilemma in the home port of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

At least four people were confirmed dead and dozens were missing after Bahraini security forces struck at the demonstrators' encampment early Thursday using tear gas, batons and live fire, according to eyewitnesses and human rights organizations.

Hundreds of police forcibly cleared Pearl Roundabout — a major junction in the capital — of the protesters, who like their brethren in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere were demanding political and social reforms.

Videos from the scene showed dense clouds of tear gas, protesters bloodied and screaming, and flattened white tents.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid al Khalifa expressed regret for the predawn raid but said it was needed to pull the nation back from "the brink of a sectarian abyss." He alleged, without offering evidence, that weapons were found at the protest site.

Bahrain's decision to use deadly force to suppress dissent put the Obama administration in a difficult position, caught between its calls for reform across the Middle East and its support for a monarchy that's crucial to the U.S. military presence and American hopes of containing Iran.

Unlike in Egypt, the tensions in Bahrain have a sectarian edge. The country's Shiite Muslims, roughly three-quarters of the population, are politically marginalized and often derided as a fifth column for Shiite Iran.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, along with European leaders, condemned the violence against protesters.

Clinton said she'd called the foreign minister "and directly conveyed our deep concerns about the actions of the security forces." Speaking after a Capitol Hill briefing for lawmakers on Egypt, she said, "Bahrain is a friend and an ally, and has been for many years. And while all governments have a responsibility to provide citizens with security and stability, we call (for) restraint."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke with Bahrain's crown prince Thursday, the Pentagon said.

Clinton's words seemed relatively mild compared with President Barack Obama's denunciation of Iran earlier this week for attacks on protesters there or the White House's veiled urgings for former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave office.

With funerals for the dead in Manama planned for Friday, and more protests scheduled Saturday, new confrontations seemed likely.

"This is a real pickle" for the United States, said Gregory Gause, a political science professor at the University of Vermont and an expert on the Persian Gulf.

Also, unlike in Egypt, where the conscript army refused to take sides, Bahrain's security forces are drawn from the Sunni Muslim minority, which controls the state. As they see it, "if the regime falls, they fall too," Gause said.

"Compared to Egypt, they've said nothing on Bahrain," said Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. The administration reacted tepidly to a political crackdown that began in mid-August, he said.

On a visit to Manama last December, Clinton offered measured praise for the monarchy's reform efforts, saying, "I am impressed by the commitment that the government has to the democratic path that Bahrain is walking on."

The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which operates from Bahrain, patrols the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Arabian Sea. Usually composed of more than 20 ships, it would play a central role in keeping open the strategic Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world's oil passes, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf in the event of war in Iran.

Instability in Bahrain also will worry neighbor Saudi Arabia, which has a large Shiite population in its oil-rich Eastern Province.

"The Saudis are very aware of the perceived risk involving a Shia-dominated government (coming to power) in Bahrain, and anything that jeopardizes the stability of the existing government they would see with great alarm," said a senior U.S. official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the sensitive issue.

As protest movements continued to surge in the Arab world, Clinton said Thursday that the State Department was reprogramming $150 million in funds to help support Egypt's hoped-for transition to democracy. Undersecretary of State William Burns and a top White House aide will travel to Egypt next week to discuss where to target U.S. assistance, she said.

In Libya, anti-government protesters clashed for a third day with security forces and gangs of regime loyalists in Bengazi, the country's second-largest city, and other cities in one of the most serious challenges to the mercurial dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, in his more than 40 years in power, according to news reports.

An unconfirmed number of people were killed, said Mohammad Eljahmi, a Libyan ex-patriot living in Boston, quoting acquaintances in Libya with whom he's been speaking by telephone "almost every 15 minutes."

The street battles in Bengazi, he said, erupted after large crowds attended the funerals of a 14-year-old protester and a woman who was killed Wednesday while she was watching the demonstrations from her window.

There were reports that regime snipers fired on Thursday's protests from the roof of the Pedisti Hotel in downtown Bengazi, he said.

"I am hearing that thousands are rioting. They are chanting 'Tell Gaddafi and his son that Bengazi is full of men' and 'Wake up, Bengazi, wake up. Your day has finally come.'"

Eljahmi, the brother of a former senior official-turned pro-democracy dissident who died in 2009, allegedly from torture in prison, said he was told that violence also gripped towns in the western mountains and the coastal city of Tobruk, where the security force's headquarters were torched.

In Yemen, the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh faced a seventh day of protests in which at least four people were killed during clashes between some 3,000 marchers and police in the southern port city of Aden, Reuters news agency reported.

At least 17 others were wounded by gunfire, Reuters reported, quoting an unidentified local official.

Street battles also flared in the capital, Sanaa. Security forces and pro-regime crowds blocked hundreds of students, many members of the Islamist party Islah, from marching from Sanaa University to central Tahrir Square. At least 10 people were injured.

Protesters are demanding an end to Saleh's 30-year rule, electoral reforms and a crackdown on official corruption. Saleh has agreed that neither he nor his son will run in an election set for 2013.

The country's leading Islamist cleric and the leader of Islah, Sheik Abdul-Majid al Zindani, warned Thursday that a loose opposition alliance will join the protests unless Saleh agrees to form a government of national reconciliation with opposition parties.

Zindani, who's on a U.S. Treasury list of international terrorists because of his past association with Osama bin Laden, said leading clerics would meet Monday to forge a unified position on the protests.

Saleh already was facing serious problems before the protests began. They include a southern secessionist movement, an uprising by a Shiite sect in the north and the growing presence in the country of an al Qaida-affiliated terrorist group.

The Obama administration, which has stepped up counter-terrorism assistance to Saleh, is deeply concerned that Yemen could collapse into a failed state in which the al Qaida affiliate could thrive and plot attacks on the United States and other Western targets.

(Strobel and Landay reported from Washington. Shashank Bengali in Cairo and McClatchy special correspondent Nasser Arrabyee in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.)

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