WASHINGTON -- Alarmed by the threat of Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife as unrest spreads in the Mideast, the Obama administration on Tuesday urged Saudi Arabia not to hold back political reform in neighboring Bahrain, a longtime U.S. friend that is also caught between old loyalties to both majority-Sunni Saudi Arabia and majority-Shiite Iran.
Washington urged the ruling family in Bahrain, home to the Navy's 5th Fleet, to talk to protesters about political reform as reports came in of hundreds of Bahraini demonstrators injured by shotgun blasts and clubs. A Saudi soldier from a large contingent of Gulf troops imported to Bahrain was shot to death by a protester.
Urging restraint, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed alarm over "provocative acts and sectarian violence," and said she telephoned Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud to stress the need for the foreign forces to promote dialogue.
"We call for calm and restraint on all sides in Bahrain," Clinton told reporters in Cairo, where she was urging on democratic currents that chased Hosni Mubarak from power last month. The Egyptian model inspired protesters in Bahrain and to a limited degree in autocratic Saudi Arabia, worrying the longtime dynastic rulers in both countries.
With fragile democratic processes struggling to take hold in Egypt and Tunisia, and deadly violence continuing in Libya, Clinton said Bahrain's government and protesters "must take steps now to negotiate toward a political resolution."
The crisis in Bahrain contains ingredients for an explosive regional crisis: an embattled Sunni royal family unable to appease an emboldened Shiite majority, foreign troops deployed to keep order, a state of emergency, a dead Saudi soldier, an angry Iran.
For the U.S., the stakes are high and not just because Bahrain hosts a huge naval base a short distance across the Persian Gulf from Iran. After the collapse of U.S.-allied governments in Egypt and Tunisia, how the unrest plays out in a Sunni-Shiite dynamic could mark a significant shift in the regional balance of power between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has purchased billions of dollars in American military equipment to counteract the Islamic republic's growing influence.
More than 1,000 Saudi-led troops entered Bahrain Monday. The U.S. has expressed concern about the deployment but Clinton said Bahrain's government had the right to ask for help to keep order. The White House, similarly, said Tuesday that force would only worsen the situation in Bahrain, but stopped short of calling for soldiers from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to return home.
"There is no military solution to the problems in Bahrain," spokesman Tommy Vietor told reporters. "A political solution is necessary and all sides must now work to produce a dialogue that addresses the needs of all of Bahrain's citizens."
The fear is the administration's calls for national dialogue and restraint will end up being ignored as events on the ground shift rapidly. On Tuesday, Bahrain's king declared a three-month state of emergency and gave the country's military chief wide authority to battle the protest movement, while clashes broke out across the island. And Iran responded to Saudi Arabia's assistance by declaring the intervention "unacceptable" and predicting it would complicate the kingdom's political crisis.
Iran holds no deep political ties to Bahrain's Shiite groups, but some Iranian hard-liners have hailed their efforts over the years to secure greater rights. Bahrain and Iran do have longstanding economic ties, and Iran has tried to leverage both the sectarian and trading relationships.
Part of the U.S. hesitation in pressing Bahrain, a Middle East anchor of American defense strategy, reflects concern over what role Iran might be playing in the protest movement.
The State Department urged American citizens on Tuesday to avoid traveling to Bahrain due to "the potential for ongoing political and civil unrest," and authorized the voluntary departure of family members of U.S. Embassy staff. It advised other Americans in Bahrain to consider leaving.
Bahrain has been swept up in the wave of protests that have spread across the Arab world since December, and protesters are seeking an elected government and a voice for Shiites in running the nation. Shiites account for 70 percent of the population, but are widely excluded from high-level political or security posts. Some protesters want to topple the entire royal family.
Obama administration officials have been worried about the country from the get-go, but their response has been uneven. They originally stressed the U.S. condemnation of the monarchy's crackdown on protesters, and then offered praise for efforts to establish a national dialogue. Yet as the U.S. quietly urged longtime ally Mubarak to leave power, and then loudly demanded the same of Moammar Gadhafi after Libya's violent repression of protesters, no similar suggestion has ever been made in Bahrain despite the persistent failure to establish order.
Saudi Arabia's new involvement in the crisis after a long history of tinkering in Bahrain complicates the situation. The Saudi royal family has bristled at U.S. demands for greater democracy throughout the Arab world, opting instead to keep public order in its kingdom by pumping billions of dollars into public subsidies and threatening tough action against perceived troublemakers. It also was unpleased by the lack of U.S. support for Mubarak.
Bahrain's request for Saudi and United Arab Emirates troops could imply that the government isn't serious about changing its fundamental makeup or that the Saudis are determined to maintain order in their backyard. In either of these cases, the motivation would be at odds with the U.S. goal for the region of establishing stronger ties even as countries make greater commitments toward democracy.
Clinton said she told the Saudi foreign minister that "everyone needs to be promoting the dialogue between the parties." Yet, illustrating the primarily problem in Bahrain, she said the U.S. calls "on all sides to immediately begin that dialogue."