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Bahrain crackdown dashes U.S. hopes for negotiated solution

The U.S. has been urging Bahrain's king and protesters to reach a power-sharing deal. The Obama administration moves to distance itself from the violence even as it seeks to preserve ties with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

March 17, 2011|By Paul Richter and Neela Banerjee, Los Angeles Times
  • Women cry during a protest outside the Bahraini Embassy in Kuwait City against a violent crackdown on anti-government protesters in Bahrain.
Women cry during a protest outside the Bahraini Embassy in Kuwait City against… (Raed Qutena, EPA )

Reporting from Washington and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — -- The violent crackdown on protesters in Bahrain sounded a virtual death knell to the Obama administration's efforts to negotiate an end to the political crisis in the strategically vital Persian Gulf.

In their efforts to maintain regional stability and key U.S. relationships, Obama administration officials have been urging Bahrain's Sunni king and Shiite-led protesters to negotiate a power-sharing deal that would give the impoverished Shiite majority a greater political voice. But a bloody crackdown Wednesday appears to have placed a negotiated deal far out of reach, and it may further inflame sectarian tensions in the region.

Obama administration officials, shaken by the bloody confrontations in the island nation, hurried to try to distance themselves from the violence. Yet they also showed their interest in trying to preserve their relationship with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, valued partners on security issues and energy.

President Obama, in calls to the kings of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, urged them to use "maximum restraint." But he stopped short of condemning the violence, nor did he ask Saudi Arabia to remove its thousands of light infantry troops from the kingdom.

Obama's restraint sent a message: The United States wants desperately to preserve the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and it knows it may not be able to sway the kingdom.

On the other hand, the Obama administration is clearly worried by the damage to its reputation by its support for the government in Bahrain. The State Department issued a Twitter message insisting that it does not support the crackdown but wants a political settlement.

"Despite rumors, the U.S. has been clear in public and private that we support peaceful political process that meets aspirations of all," it said.

Kristin Diwan, a Persian Gulf specialist at American University in Washington, spoke to Bahrainis who are convinced otherwise. "They believe the United States is totally complicit in this," she said.

The Saudi and Bahraini leadership firmly believes that a political overhaul in Bahrain would be followed by a Shiite takeover of Bahrain, as well as Saudi Arabia's Eastern province and perhaps the entire kingdom, said Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group strategic analysis firm.

While that view may be wrong, "they're not going to listen, in any case," he said. "A louder criticism of the troop presence, or the behavior of the royal family, will further deepen a worrisome schism between the United States and the Saudi royal family."

The best the United States can do is to deplore the use of force, "which gives us the high ground" without alienating anyone, he said.

A U.S. official said that the crackdown leaves an important question: Will the protesters be intimidated by the violence or will they continue to demonstrate in what could be bloodier clashes?

The intervention Monday by a column of Saudi armored vehicles was clearly intended to intimidate. But it remains unclear whether it will succeed; some protesters insisted Wednesday that they would not be deterred.

There were signs that the move further sharpened regional tensions. Iran's defense minister, Ahmad Vahidi, called the move a "strategic and political blunder" and predicted that such actions would make the region "a hotbed of hostility and conflict."

U.S. officials say they are watching Iran's reactions closely. They say they don't believe Tehran instigated the uprising, but Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last weekend that the Iranians may be at least be privately encouraging it.

Still, a direct military confrontation between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in the gulf is unlikely, some U.S. officials and regional analysts say. Tehran appears to believe that it is benefitting by doing nothing as the "Arab spring" threatens Sunni rulers who have been Iran's longtime adversaries.

The Obama administration has carefully sought to remain on the side of demonstrators since uprisings in January in Tunisia and Egypt brought charges that the United States was slow to side with the forces of reform against its autocratic allies. But despite frequent pronouncements from Obama and other senior officials, it has not been easy to convey that message.

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Cairo on Tuesday, one of the leading pro-reform groups refused to meet with her, citing its belief that she had not supported the reform efforts from the beginning.

paul.richter@latimes.com

neela.banerjee@latimmes.com

Richter reported from Washington and Banerjee from Riyadh.

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