Gates urges reform in ally Bahrain

ABOARD MILITARY AIRCRAFT Sat Mar 12, 2011 11:20am EST

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ABOARD MILITARY AIRCRAFT (Reuters) - The Gulf kingdom of Bahrain must take more than 'baby steps' to enact political reforms, the top U.S. defense official said on Saturday after a visit to the tiny but important U.S. ally.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with members of Bahrain's ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family, facing a growing challenge from their country's disgruntled Shi'ite minority.

Recent clashes with security forces, which have killed seven people, have revealed the depth of the sectarian rift in Bahrain, home to a major U.S. naval base, and of resentment toward naturalized foreigners who live and work in Bahrain.

Gates said he told Bahrain's rulers that "baby steps probably would not be sufficient ... that real reform would be necessary."

As violence rages on in Libya, and Egypt and Tunisia face an uncertain future, Gates left a NATO meeting in Brussels on Friday to fly to Bahrain, where popular anger has mounted against a privileged ruling class.

The island in the shadow of Saudi Arabia is part of a string of Sunni Gulf allies of the United States that counter the regional influence of Shi'ite power Iran.

Police on Friday blocked thousands of protesters from reaching the royal court. The march came on a day when rallies were planned in Saudi Arabia, the world's No. 1 oil exporter, but a heavy police presence muted protests there.[nLDE72A1B5]

While the unrest in Bahrain has not unleashed major violence, Washington is hoping it can help shape a more orderly political transition than the sudden, turbulent change protesters imposed in Tunisia and Egypt.

"Given (the ruling family's) readiness to move … they in some respects could show the whole region how you could move forward a process of reform while sustaining stability and continuity," Gates said.

Gates said the U.S. State Department was talking to the opposition in Bahrain, which is divided between moderates who want a government reshuffle and much smaller parties who want to overthrow of the monarchy and establish a republic.

"I told (King Hamad bin Isa) and the crown prince that across region I did not believe there could be a return to status quo ante, that there was change and it could be led or it could be imposed," he said. "Obviously leading reform and being responsive is the way we would like to see this move forward."

Before Gates' arrival, Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad said he hoped the opposition would join the national dialogue without preconditions.

"We have given them the best deal they can hope for," he said. "At the end of the day we all are going to have to live in the same country together and talk to one another."

(Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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