Bahrain anti-government protests pose fresh hurdle for Obama administration

Washington, Feb 18(ANI): A brutal government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain has left the Obama administration again confronted with the task of trying to stabilize an ally besieged by growing opposition from its citizens.

US President Barack Obama did not publicly address the crackdown, but his press secretary, Jay Carney, said that the White House was urging Bahrain to use restraint in responding to "peaceful protests".

According to the Los Angeles Times, Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, and the fall of its government could scramble the strategic order in the Middle East, potentially weakening U.S. leverage and leaving Iran in a stronger position.

"The importance of the Fifth Fleet's mission cannot be overstated. They have the mission to keep the Persian Gulf open, defeat terrorism, prevent piracy and respond to crises, whether environmental, security or humanitarian," said Mark Kimmitt, former deputy director for strategy for U.S. Central Command and a former senior State Department and Pentagon official.

"Few commands worldwide have as many daily challenges and responsibilities as the Fifth Fleet," he added.

The administration's calculations are even more complicated because of Bahrain's proximity to Saudi Arabia, another Sunni kingdom of vital importance to Washington.

Unlike in Egypt, where the struggle was between democracy and dictatorship, Bahrain is suffering a flare-up in old divisions between its ruling Sunni Muslim minority and Shiites, the paper said.

This has broader regional implications, since Saudi Arabia has a significant Shiite minority in its eastern, oil-producing districts and the Shiite government in Iran would like to extend its influence over this nearby island kingdom, the paper added.

Thousands of protesters are continuing to occupy a square in Bahrain's capital, Manama, demanding political reform and greater freedom.

The opposition groups are not calling for the ruling Sunni monarchy to be ousted, but they want an end to its grip on key decisions and government posts.

Other demands, listed on a poster erected in the 'Pearl Square', included the release of all political prisoners, more jobs and housing, an elected Cabinet and the replacement of longtime Prime Minister, Sheik Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa.

Bahrain is one of the most politically volatile nations in the Middle East's wealthiest corner despite having one of the few elected parliaments and some of the most robust civil society groups.

The nation's majority Shiites - about 70 per cent of the population of some 500,000 - have long complained of discrimination and being blackballed from important state jobs. (ANI)

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