Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bahrain's crown prince,… (Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — President Obama pressed Bahrain's crown prince to ease the Persian Gulf state's brutal crackdown on its political opposition and urged him to "hold accountable" those responsible for human-rights abuses against unarmed demonstrators.
In an Oval Office meeting Tuesday with Salman bin Hamad Khalifa, Obama welcomed the kingdom's decision to lift emergency security measures that were imposed to quell the protests, as well as its announcement that the government and its opponents would begin talks on political reform, the White House said in a statement.
U.S. officials have been urging Bahrain for weeks to ease the crackdown, which has relied on troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia. Thousands of Bahrainis have been arrested since mid-March, and many were beaten or tortured.
Obama didn't specify who in the government should be held accountable for abusing demonstrators.
U.S. officials are worried that the rough treatment of the Shiite-dominated protesters by the Sunni Muslim regime could set off sectarian strife in the region. The Bahraini regime's tough measures are also embarrassing for the Obama administration because the president has professed support for the uprisings that have swept the Arab world.
Bahraini officials, who fear the growing instability will undermine their economy, are eager for signs of U.S. support. The kingdom's bonds were recently downgraded by Moody's, and it is not certain whether a high-visibility Formula One race will be held in the kingdom this fall, as has been scheduled.
At an appearance at the State Department, Khalifa, who is considered the most liberal member of the royal family, promised that "we are committed to reform in both the political and economic spheres."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered no hint of the administration's frustration at getting Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, to engage with pro-democracy forces.
"Bahrain is a partner, and a very important one, to the United States," she said.
Human rights advocates say they will wait to see whether the regime backs off its security crackdown, as promised.
Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, said Bahraini authorities could keep tight control on the opposition even without a strict emergency security law.
"It is still not clear what the meaning of a resumption of the political dialogue will be" because hundreds of opposition members remain in jail, he said.