Bahrain media charge that U.S. backs regime's overthrow

McClatchy NewspapersJune 6, 2011 

BAGHDAD — As Bahrain's reformist Crown Prince headed to Washington Monday for top-level talks, official news media in the Gulf state stepped up a drumbeat of anti-American attacks, some even accusing of the U.S. administration of colluding with opposition leaders they claim are trying to overthrow the state.

Al Wasat, the onetime opposition paper now under direct control of the Sunni minority government, carried an editorial with possible racial overtones Monday that claimed that "American black fingers are aiming to weaken the Gulf" states so the U.S. can create its own "Greater Middle East."

Media attacks have also been directed against individuals at the U.S. Embassy, first the human rights officer, who departed early, and now against the acting head of mission, Stephanie Williams, a foreign service officer.

The Akhbar Al Khaleej newspaper on Sunday accused Williams of "collusion" with the moderate opposition group, Al Wefaq, and adopting what it said was the group's "sectarian Shiite agenda."

Another paper, Al Ayyam, charged in a column Monday that the U.S. is in an "evil alliance" with the opposition group.

The government ostensibly lifted martial law on June 1, but it's still rushing highly dubious cases to its military tribunal. On Monday, 47 doctors and nurses were formally charged with a variety of crimes, from the murder of patients to attempting the overthrow of the regime, as well as some lesser offenses, such as taking part in an unauthorized public gathering.

In a May 19 speech on the "Arab Spring," President Barack Obama called for Bahrain to release political leaders now in jail. "You can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail," he said.

But more than a month after arresting two former members of parliament, the Bahrain government hasn't allowed them to see their families or consult lawyers, and seems to be preparing to bring them before the military tribunal.

It's out of this cauldron of shrill rhetoric that Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, 41, a graduate of American University in Washington, is coming to call on members of the Obama administration, which has done its best to avoid public criticism of Bahrain, with the exception of the Obama speech.

The crown prince is the leading advocate of reform, and he encouraged Bahrain's citizens to voice their dissent and exercise their right to assemble during the month-long protests that lasted from mid-February to mid-March. Now, many of the people who listened to him find themselves in jail or even charged with a criminal offense.

Reform on the island which would open up the political system to far more participation by the Shiite Muslim majority, which has been limited, through gerrymandered districts, to less than half of parliament, and has been kept from most high offices and positions of influence in the security services.

But he's only one player in the royal court, and the signs are that his uncle, Sheikh Khalifa ibn Salman al Khalifa, 75, the world's longest serving unelected prime minister, has most of the cards, and he is playing them fast and furiously.

The tenor of the official view of the U.S. — Bahrain hosts the Navy's Fifth Fleet — was clear in an interview Williams, the top U.S. diplomat in Bahrain, granted Bahrain's state television.

For an hour and 20 minutes, Williams, an experienced diplomat who almost never speaks on the record, endured often hostile questioning by Al Watan columnist Sawsan al Shaer, who openly criticized Shiite politicians and promoted a Sunni perspective. Williams spoke in Arabic, but often couldn't get a word in edgewise.

The U.S. Embassy in Bahrain wouldn't provide a transcript of the program, and Williams declined McClatchy's request for an on the record interview. But a McClatchy translation gives a flavor of the exchange.

At one point, Shaer asked if the U.S. would leave Iraq more destroyed or more secure than it found it. When Williams said the U.S. was dealing with Iraq as a partner, Shaer retorted: "The countries of the Gulf see this as a dreadful experience. And they do not want this same thing to happen again in any other country."

Then Shaer swung into assault mode. "There are fears among the sects of Bahrain, especially the Sunni people, that the Americans do not deal in a fair way with all the sects." In another question, she said Obama's speech "looked at the Bahraini society from one side."

In her closing remarks, Shaer declared that: "we hope that other countries leave the Bahraini people to solve their problems by themselves, as they used to."

Members of the Shiite opposition said they were distressed by the interview, because Williams didn't turn the tables and challenge the questioner sufficiently. "She was criticized and cornered by the interviewer," said a family member of one jailed opposition figure, who asked not to be identified to avoid retribution. Said another: Williams' interview "is not what one would expect from a U.S. official."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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