WASHINGTON President Barack Obama called on Bahrain on Friday to exercise restraint after the kingdom's security forces ignored Washington's earlier call for calm and opened fire on protesters demanding reforms.
Amid unrest across much of the Middle East, U.S. officials have voiced concern about violence on the island nation in talks with the government of Bahrain, which hosts a big U.S. military base and borders Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said he had asked the State Department to probe whether Bahrain had broken a U.S. law he wrote that prohibits aid to foreign security forces who violate human rights. The United States provided around $20 million in military aid to Bahrain in 2010.
Obama said he was deeply concerned by reports of violence in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen. "The United States condemns the use of violence by governments against peaceful protesters in those countries, and wherever else it may occur," Obama said in a statement.
In Libya, soldiers sought to crush unrest. In Yemen, at least four protesters were killed in clashes between security forces and government loyalists and crowds demanding an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 32-year rule.
Bahrain's crackdown on protesters, in defiance of U.S. calls for restraint, posed a new dilemma for the Obama administration after a popular uprising in Egypt ousted U.S. ally President Hosni Mubarak a week ago.
Bahraini security forces shot at protesters in the capital Manama on Friday.
A U.S. national security official said Bahrain security forces appeared to be using rubber bullets and live ammunition fired from, but not limited to, shotguns.
'WANT TO AVOID'
"This (violence) is exactly what the administration and the U.S. want to avoid," said Robert Danin, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
"In the case of Egypt the goal was to see managed change, (an) orderly transition. But the number-one thing was to ensure that this be done without violence. The minute that there's violence it is very hard to reconcile support for your ally and the aspirations of the demonstrators."
U.S. national security and intelligence agencies expect Bahrain's government to ride out the unrest and that security forces will eventually succeed in containing the protests, a senior U.S. official familiar with government reporting and analysis on Bahrain told Reuters.
The United States views Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, as a strategic ally that straddles oil supply lines in the Gulf. As in the case of Egypt and elsewhere in the region, it must balance strategic interests with its support for protesters' demands for economic and political reforms.
Obama's response may be colored by the U.S. view of Bahrain as one of the more progressive Arab states. Secretary of State Hillary 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.
Several 2009 cables from the U.S. Embassy in Manama, made available to Reuters, characterize King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa as an enlightened and deeply pro-American ruler who, since assuming the throne in 1999, has fostered reconciliation with the Shi'ite Muslim majority and has undertaken serious political and economic reforms.
"The U.S. is in a rather embarrassing position, because officials have tended to give King Hamad far more credit than they should have for political reforms," said Michele Dunne, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The State Department on Friday issued a travel warning for Bahrain, noting clashes between protesters and demonstrators. "Spontaneous demonstrations and violence are expected throughout the next several days," the department said, urging U.S. citizens to defer nonessential travel to the country.
Middle East experts said the Obama administration has little leverage over Bahrain's Sunni Muslim monarchy.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the top U.S. military officer, may be reprising the role he played in the Egypt uprising by keeping channels open to the Bahraini military, they said.
"The options to bring pressure seem extremely limited. Despite the close alliance, Bahrain has been defiant of the United States over the years," said Simon Henderson, a Gulf expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn, Susan Cornwell, Mark Hosenball and Tom Ferraro in Washington and Matt Spetalnick aboard Air Force One; Editing by John O'Callaghan, Philip Barbara and Eric Walsh)