Bahrain stung by Obama comment on sectarian tensions

DUBAI Thu Sep 26, 2013 7:09am EDT

Flames are seen on the road after anti-government protesters threw a Molotov cocktail at riot police during clashes in the village of Maqusha, west of Manama September 21, 2013. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Flames are seen on the road after anti-government protesters threw a Molotov cocktail at riot police during clashes in the village of Maqusha, west of Manama September 21, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed

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DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain voiced disappointment with President Barack Obama's description of the kingdom as beset by sectarian tension, arguing its problem was with "terrorists" who fomented division.

Bahrain has been rocked by almost daily clashes by members of the Shi'ite Muslim majority since February 2011, when it quelled a Shi'ite-led uprising demanding the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty give up power.

In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Obama mentioned "efforts to resolve sectarian tensions that continue to surface in places like Iraq, Bahrain and Syria".

The reference prompted Bahrain's ambassador to the United States, Houda Nonoo, to say on a website described as her official blog that she was "disappointed to hear him compare the situation in Bahrain to that of the current situation in Iraq and the unfolding tragedies in Syria".

Bahrain was committed to making the country a "better place for all its citizens", Nonoo wrote, while acknowledging that a reform program was not yet complete.

"Making such a false equivalence only serves to obfuscate this important work," she wrote.

On Thursday, Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, said the kingdom fostered a culture of tolerance between its various communities.

His statement "clarified that what is occurring in Bahrain today is a concerted effort by terrorist extremist groups to target security personnel and expatriates with the intent of spreading fear and division within Bahrain's society, as well as targeting Bahrain's national economy and development".

Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdallah al-Khalifa said Bahrain had "never witnessed at any time sectarian tensions" in a statement on the state news agency late on Wednesday.

Sheikh Rashid, who made no mention of Obama's speech, said violence was not carried out for sectarian motives but confronting 'terrorist acts' were among the state's main duties.

Shi'ites in Bahrain have long complained of entrenched discrimination in areas such as employment and public services, despite denials of the Sunni-led government.

The relationship between Bahrain and the United States has seen strains in the past. Bahrain provides a Gulf base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, but has also been criticized over its record for human rights.

Earlier this year, a U.S. State Department report said the government had failed to implement the most important recommendations made in an independent inquiry that looked at how Bahrain had handled the 2011 unrest.

The State Department report was rejected by the government and Bahraini lawmakers urged the government to stop the U.S. ambassador in Bahrain from "interfering in domestic affairs".

(Writing by Yara Bayoumy, Editing by William Maclean and Elizabeth Piper)

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