A burst of deadly violence against demonstrators in Bahrain has left the Obama administration again confronting the awkward task of trying to stabilize an essential allied government besieged by growing opposition from its citizens.
A tiny monarchy in the Persian Gulf, Bahrain does not have the size or cultural importance of Egypt, whose president was forced out by demonstrators one week ago. Yet Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, and the fall of its government could scramble the strategic order in the Middle East, potentially weakening U.S. leverage and leaving Iran in a stronger position.
In an acknowledgement of the kingdom's crucial role, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other officials rushed to reach out Thursday to Bahraini officials, urging them to halt the violence and to quickly adopt political reforms that could satisfy the protesters.
Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, commanded by Vice Admiral Mark I. Fox, controls U.S. naval ships and aircraft operating in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Most months of the year, there are dozens of the U.S. naval vessels in the region.
The Fifth Fleet's broad mission is to protect the flow of oil and, in case of a military crisis with Iran, to keep open the Strait of Hormuz, the 29-mile choke point near the entrance to the Persian Gulf. More than 20 percent of the world's petroleum shipments travel through the strait.
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"The importance of the Fifth Fleet's mission cannot be overstated," said Mark Kimmitt, former deputy director for operations for U.S. Central Command and a former senior State Department and Pentagon official. "They have the mission to keep the Persian Gulf open, defeat terrorism, prevent piracy and respond to crises, whether environmental, security or humanitarian.
"Few commands worldwide have as many daily challenges and responsibilities as the Fifth Fleet."
The administration carefully crafted its outreach to Bahrain's leadership, deploring the violence by security forces that killed at least five people, but stopping short of condemning the government. The U.S. appeared to be striving, as it did in the early stages of the Egyptian crisis, to leave the Bahraini government room to work out a solution.
Clinton, in a call to Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, voiced "deep concerns" about the security forces' violent crackdown on Thursday, and warned against more violence on Friday, when there would be "funerals and prayers."
But the U.S. message to Bahrain differed from how it approached Egypt in a key way: While Cairo for decades had resisted reforms, Clinton praised Bahrain as a "friend and ally" that has taken some steps to reshape its government. She urged "a return to the process that will result in real, meaningful changes for the people there."
In a visit to Bahrain in December, Clinton praised King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and said she "was impressed by the commitment that the government has to the democratic path that Bahrain is walking on."
The U.S. knows its handling of Bahrain is under scrutiny by other Middle Eastern allies, who saw the Mubarak regime tumble in Egypt and questioned whether the United States would support them if they faced similar unrest.
Some analysts are predicting that Saudi Arabia, worried that Iran could emerge with a new ally if Bahrain's Shia majority topples its Sunni monarchy, would send an armored column across the 16-mile causeway to Bahrain if it thought the government was teetering.
The Saudis "see this as their sphere of influence," said David Schenker, a former Pentagon official now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
U.S. officials declined to offer details on their conversations with the Saudis about Bahrain.
A U.S. defense official said the protests were causing U.S. military officials to review backup plans in case the U.S. was asked to leave Bahrain. Pentagon officials said U.S. naval vessels also put in at several other ports in the Gulf, including Jebel Ali in Dubai.
But another senior military officer said, "We're not at that point right now. We have no indication that any of this is directed at Americans or American interests."