ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — The single biggest policy shift in President Obama's Middle East speech Thursday may have been his public criticism of the "brute force" with which the government of Bahrain has cracked down on its political opposition.
The main political opposition group there welcomed the speech. The Sunni Muslim minority government, in a statement early Friday, ignored the criticism, but said the speech "included visions and principles that agree with the democratic strategy adopted by Bahrain."
"Mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain's citizens and will not make legitimate calls for reform to go away," Obama said.
Calling for dialogue as the "only way forward," he added tartly, "you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail."
He also took note of the destruction of Shiite mosques in dozens of Bahrain's towns and villages, where Shiites outnumber Sunni Muslims nearly four to one. "Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain," Obama said.
What he didn't mention, and what rankled many in the opposition, was that the crackdown began after Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent troops into Bahrain in mid-March to back the Sunni minority government, helping to transform a national uprising on political reform into a sectarian dispute.
Obama's commitment to democratic transformation was a "long-awaited step," the country's main Shiite organization, Al Wefaq, said in a statement. It also backed his call for the release of opposition leaders now in jail and a halt to other forms of repression.
But the organization also expressed skepticism and promised to watch closely to see whether Obama follows through.
"We are looking to real commitment from the U.S.," the statement said. "We . . . are hoping the president continues to speak out when he sees repression by U.S. allies of democracy-seekers in this ongoing process."
Until Thursday, Bahrain's crackdown had drawn virtually no public U.S. criticism, despite a wide range of human rights abuses including the arrests of opposition politicians and journalists, the destruction of religious buildings, the prosecution of medical personnel who treated protesters and the firings of Shiite professionals.
At least six opposition leaders are in jail, and close relatives say at least two have been tortured. On Wednesday, Bahrain began the trial of four opposition newspaper editors on charges that could send them to prison for as long as two years.
Before the government issued its response, a senior Bahraini official challenged several of Obama's assumptions, asking for anonymity to give what he called his personal view.
"There are no political leaders in jail," he said. "The people who have been detained or charged are not there because of their political beliefs. People detained for questioning, and people charged have been charged for criminal acts."
Acknowledging that some of those jailed once sat in Bahrain's parliament, he nevertheless dismissed them as not having been "opposition leaders." "I don't believe they led," he said.
"What about Ebrahim Sharif?" said Khalil al Marzooq, a Shiite who quit parliament to protest the crackdown, referring to a Sunni who heads a small liberal secular party, al Waad, and was detained in March.
Family members of the jailed politicians saw Obama's speech as a step in the right direction after weeks of dismay over U.S. silence. Still, they longed for harsher words.
"I felt happy and relieved after his statement, especially when he asked for the release of the prisoners," said the wife of one jailed dissident, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. "But yet, I felt the language used did not reflect the mass brutality and violations we face every day."
She pointed out that there's still been no investigation into the deaths of four people while in detention, and that Obama had failed to criticize Saudi Arabian troops' role in the crackdown.
"As long as they are not considered invading troops I don't think we can move forward," she said.
Still, Obama's remarks drew praise. The speech, Marzooq told McClatchy, will "excite the reform movements within the region, and not just in Bahrain."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.
McClatchy Newspapers 2011