WASHINGTON Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday Bahrain was "on the wrong track," but the United States may have little leverage as the Gulf kingdom presses a deadly security crackdown.
The United States has responded cautiously to the turmoil in Bahrain, saying this week it understood why the country's Sunni Muslim rulers called in reinforcements from Saudi Arabia as they face spreading anti-government protests by the country's Shi'ite Muslim majority.
But Clinton's tougher comments, made in TV interviews in Cairo while on a trip to the region, reflected what analysts said was growing U.S. concern that the situation could boil over into a full-blown confrontation between Sunni Gulf Arab states and Shi'ite-ruled Iran.
"We find what's happening in Bahrain alarming. We think that there is no security answer to the aspirations and demands of the demonstrators," Clinton told CBS, urging Bahrain to negotiate a political agreement with demonstrators.
"They're on the wrong track and we think that the wrong track is going to really affect adversely the ability of the Bahraini government to bring about the political reform that everyone says is needed," she told NBC.
Clinton spoke after Bahraini security forces drove protesters from the streets in an assault in which as many as six people were killed.
U.S. President Barack Obama called the kings of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on Wednesday to urge them to exercise "maximum restraint" and pursue a political solution to the crisis, the White House said.
Bahrain's hardline stance, backed by Saudi Arabia, comes despite repeated U.S. pleas for dialogue in the country, which hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet and has long been seen as an important bulwark against Iranian influence in the region.
Political analysts say the Obama administration -- which gave strong support to pro-democracy protests in Egypt and Tunisia -- faced a new dilemma as violence in Bahrain appeared to dash hopes for quick political talks.
"This is a really sticky situation, there is no question about that. The administration had given the Bahraini government a lot of room on how to deal with this, but I think they are feeling disrespected," said Gregory Gause, a Gulf expert at the University of Vermont.
Gause said Bahrain's decision to move against the protesters just one day after Saudi reinforcements arrived showed the intent was to quash a rebellion rather than establish order so that political dialogue can resume.
"If the Saudi troops were there as a lever to get the opposition to the table, that would have been one thing. But it seems that this was all fairly coordinated," he said.
The United States dispatched a senior diplomat, Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, to Bahrain on Monday to push for new talks. His visit appears to have been brief -- the State Department said on Wednesday Feltman had already left the kingdom.
Bahrain's turmoil comes as the United States seeks to assess political changes in the Middle East after pro-democracy uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, spreading protests in Yemen and a bloody Libyan crackdown on rebels seeking to oust longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Political analysts say the United States has to tread more carefully with Bahrain -- and by extension with Saudi Arabia, where rulers have decided it is better to ignore U.S. advice on reform and fight back rather than give up ground to protests.
"Once you draw a line in the sand and people ignore it, then you have to figure out how far you are willing to push them to get what you want to achieve. I don't think they have any plan right now on what comes next," said Brian Katulis, a security analyst at the Center for American Progress.
Katulis said Washington's top priority should be narrowing policy differences with Riyadh, and that the U.S. relationship with the world's top oil producer was dangerously adrift with potentially serious ramifications for regional security.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)