U.S. at odds with Bahrain, Saudis over Iran's role in regional unrest

Thursday, February 24, 2011   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

ABU DHABI United States officials say that Iran is not involved in the regime crisis in neighboring Bahrain.

The finding is at odds with assessments by the government of Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet and the government of Saudi Arabia.

The administration of President Barack Obama has dismissed any link between the Shi'ite revolt in Bahrain and Iran. Officials said the administration has determined that Shi'ite demands for the end of the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain were based on decades of discrimination.

"From my perspective that has not been the principal focus of what happened in Egypt or what happened in Bahrain or any of these other countries," Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said.

Mullen's assessment, said to reflect that of the military and the administration, was issued in a briefing on Feb. 21 during his visit to Qatar. The admiral has been touring the Gulf and Middle East amid unprecedented unrest that has ousted at least two Arab presidents.

Officials said the U.S. assessment, formed as early as 2006, differed from that of the pro-Western Bahraini regime, which presides over a Shi'ite majority, as well as that of neighboring Saudi Arabia. They said the administration, including the military and Defense Department, concluded that the wave of unrest throughout the Middle East took Iran by surprise.

"Those are by and large internal issues, as opposed to issues fomented by some external forces," Mullen said. "There's always concerns in this region with Iran and certainly the U.S. has them as well as all the regional players."

Officials said Washington played a major role in preventing a war between Bahrain's military and the Shi'ite opposition. They said senior administration officials, including President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were on the phone to Bahraini leaders to help end military deployment in Manama, which included the use of U.S.-origin combat platforms.

The administration also consulted with Saudi Arabia, regarded as the leading ally of Bahrain. Officials acknowledged reports that the Saudi military sent officers and equipment in an effort to help quell the Shi'ite revolt.

"Everybody in the region is watching whats happening in Bahrain very closely," Mullen, who did not confirm the reports of Saudi intervention, said.

On Feb. 22, calm was restored in most of Bahrain in wake of more than a week of protests, in which seven people were killed. Officials said the unrest did not significantly hamper operations of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, with headquarters in Bahrain.

In a briefing, Mullen credited Bahraini Crown Prince Salman Bin Issa Al Khalifa with defusing the crisis in the GCC kingdom. Salman, educated in the United States, was said to have been on the phone with the administration for the last week.

"He's [Salman] taken some significant positive steps, from a leadership standpoint," Mullen said. "What struck me was the violence went away almost immediately. I think it's reassured all of us."

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