BAGHDAD — The United States pulled its human rights officer from Bahrain last week after he'd become the subject of a weeks-long campaign of ethnic slurs and thinly veiled threats on a pro-government website and in officially sanctioned newspapers.
Ludovic Hood left the island nation on Thursday. During his final days in Bahrain, Hood was given security protection equal to that of an ambassador, U.S. officials said.
"The safety and security of our diplomatic personnel is our highest priority," the State Department in Washington said in a statement in response to inquiries from McClatchy. "It is unacceptable that elements within Bahrain would target an individual for carrying out his professional duties."
Hood's early departure from Bahrain — five human rights and U.S. officials confirmed that he had not been scheduled to leave Bahrain last week — underscores the serious tensions that have arisen between the U.S. government and Bahrain, the home port of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
On May 19, President Barack Obama criticized the Sunni Muslim government's harsh crackdown on the country's majority Shiite Muslim population. The crackdown has featured the destruction of Shiite mosques, the jailing and physical abuse of leading opposition political figures and journalists, and official harassment and intimidation of teachers, medical professionals and others.
The campaign against Hood, however, had been going on for two months, State Department officials said, with one of the most virulent attacks coming May 7 in an anonymous posting on a pro-government website that included links to photos of Hood and his wife on their wedding day and information on where Hood and his family lived.
The posting claimed that the biggest single supporter of the anti-government protests that began Feb. 14 was the political section of the U.S. embassy, working "in cooperation" with a cell of the Lebanese Hezbollah militant movement.
The head of the office, the blog claimed, was "a person of Jewish origin named Ludovic Hood," and charged: "He's the one who trained and provoked the demonstrators to clash with the army" near the Pearl Roundabout that was the epicenter of the demonstrations.
Hood also was "the one" telling the opposition of the steps they should take "to inflame the situation," the posting claimed.
The blogger called for "honest people to avenge" Hood's role, gave the neighborhood in which he lived with his family in Manama, the capital, and promised to provide his street address. It linked to a wedding photo of Hood with his "Jewish wife, Alisa Newman."
The attacks continued even after Hood left Bahrain, according to an official in Washington, with two newspapers on Monday targeting both Hood and the embassy's current top diplomat, Stephanie Williams.
The Arabic language website appears to have the approval of Bahrain's royal family. Called Bahrainforums.com, its homepage includes photos of Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Bahrain's crown prince, the country's prime minister, ?Prince Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa, and of the king, Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa.
Khalifa bin Salman is the longest serving unelected prime minister in the world.
Human rights activists in Bahrain said that it is unlikely that under martial law imposed in mid-March a publication featuring the smiling faces of the royal family would be permitted if the regime did not approve.
The U.S. Embassy asked the government to stop the campaign against Hood, but the government "didn't, wouldn't, couldn't stop it," said one U.S. official, who couldn't be named because the department was restricting its comments to its public statement. The offending blog item could still be read on the website Monday.
"If the facts hold up...if it's true that the embassy human rights officer has been run out of town by extremist vigilantes peddling a vile racist screed, then Bahrain has some accounting to do," the official said.
Shiite Muslims comprise more than two thirds of the island's population but are largely excluded from high office. Many moderate Sunnis also took part in the demonstrations, but the crackdown has fallen largely on the Shiite population.
Hood could not be reached for comment. Fellow Foreign Service officers said they doubted he is Jewish, although his wife may well be.
Hood's function in Bahrain was to cover court cases and record human rights violations in Bahrain, and he was well regarded by the human rights community there.
In his final message to his friends in Bahrain, Hood apologized that he had had to assume a low profile in his final weeks and couldn't say goodbye. In his message, he sounded like a man ordered home on short notice.
"Hello," he wrote. "I am leaving Bahrain today and moving back to Washington. I will start my new assignment at the State Department in June. I am sorry I was not able to say goodbye properly. Given recent developments affecting the Embassy, it was prudent for me to keep a low profile during my final weeks in Bahrain."
(Special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed)
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