WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States urged Bahrain on Thursday to show restraint as concern deepened over unrest in a cornerstone for U.S. military power in the region and a strategic ally on oil supply lines from the Gulf.
As anti-government protests rock the Middle East, the White House, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Pentagon all urged Bahrain's leaders to pull back after police attacked demonstrators in the Gulf kingdom's worst violence in decades.
Clinton said she expressed "deep concern" in a telephone call with Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa and emphasized that violence should not occur on Friday, the main day of prayer in the Muslim world when people in Bahrain may also attend funerals of those killed in the unrest.
"Bahrain is a friend and an ally and has been for many years," Clinton told reporters. "We call on restraint from the government, (and) to keep its commitment to hold accountable those who have utilized excessive force."
Clinton, who has called on Arab leaders to heed complaints of their citizens, said Bahrain's Sunni-dominated government should do the same and implement promised democratic reforms.
The turmoil in Bahrain presents Washington with a dilemma, not least because the island nation has long been the base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet responsible for operations in the Gulf, the Arabian Sea and east Africa -- covering hot spots including Afghanistan, Somalia, Iran and Yemen.
Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said it was unclear what position leaders of Bahrain's Shi'ite opposition might take on the U.S. military presence.
"It is not a foregone conclusion that they would want the Fifth Fleet out. Bahraini Shi'ites are not anxious to be annexed by Iran and having a U.S. presence there would be a guarantee," she told reporters.
Bahrain is the U.S. base for coordinating more than 30 vessels, including aircraft carrier strike groups and nuclear submarines. The Fifth Fleet oversees 30,000 U.S. personnel across the region.
The kingdom is also home to land-based Patriot missile installations and looks across the Gulf to Iran, which Western governments suspect of seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Iran denies this, saying its program is solely to generate power.
"They are a reliable partner and that's why reaching out to them is so important," said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Bahrain unrest follows protests that toppled U.S.-allied governments in Tunisia and Egypt. The prospect of regional instability could shake U.S. plans to boost defense cooperation around the Gulf to head off any threat from Iran.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke by telephone on Thursday about the security situation in Bahrain with Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the Pentagon said, without providing any details.
Senator John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, condemned Bahrain's response to the unrest thus far.
"Using tear gas, batons and rubber bullets on peaceful protesters is the worst kind of response to a nonviolent demonstration," he said.
Bahrain, a non-OPEC oil producer, has a Shi'ite Muslim majority but is ruled by the Sunni Muslim al-Khalifa dynasty that critics say has failed to deliver on promises to allow more democratic rights and economic opportunity.
Bahrain's Shi'ite opposition has denied being influenced by Iran's Shi'ite-led government.
A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bahrain's leaders had made a serious effort in recent years to implement reforms, moves which they felt were not being fully recognized.
"The jury is still out on whether they are going to draw the conclusion that they need to go further and faster," the diplomat said.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Clinton, while calling for reforms in much of the Arab world, have also been careful not to back protests too explicitly out of concern that changes could undermine U.S. interests or pose new threats to Israel, Washington's chief ally in the Middle East.
Clinton said she had urged Bahrain's leaders "to seriously engage with all sectors of society" to plot the way forward.
"There have been reform steps taken which we want to see continue, we want to see strengthened," she said.
Clinton told Bahrain civil society activists during a visit in December their government was moving more quickly than many others in the region to implement democratic change.
"It's easy to be very focused internally and see the glass as half-empty. I see the glass as half-full," she said.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by John O'Callaghan and John Whitesides