U.S. President Barack Obama urged the governments of Bahrain, Libya and Yemen on Friday to show restraint in dealing with protests that have erupted in their countries.
“I am deeply concerned by reports of violence in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen. The United States condemns the use of violence against peaceful protesters in those countries, and wherever else it may occur,” the president said in a statement read to reporters by White House press secretary Jay Carney.
“The United States urges the governments of Bahrain, Libya and Yemen to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests and to respect the rights of their people,” Obama said.
In wake of the unrest in Egypt, which led to the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule over the country, anti-government protests have spread throughout the Middle East.
In Bahrain, Four people were killed and 231 wounded when riot police raided a protest camp early on Thursday, where anti-government demonstrators were sleeping. The protests have continued on Friday, with government security forces firing on demonstrators and injuring 23 people.
The unrest has presented the United States with a now familiar dilemma, torn between its desire for stability in a longstanding Arab ally and a need to uphold its own principles about the right of people to demonstrate for democratic change.
The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which projects U.S. power across the Middle East and Central Asia, is based near Manama in Bahrain.
Soldiers sought to put down unrest in Libya’s second city on Friday and opposition forces said they were fighting troops for control of a nearby town after crackdowns which Human Rights Watch said killed 84 people.
Protests inspired by the revolts that brought down long-serving rulers of neighboring Egypt and Tunisia have led to violence unprecedented in Muammar Gaddafi’s 41 years as leader of the oil exporting country.
The New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch said that according to its sources inside Libya, security forces had killed at least 84 people over the past two days. Exile groups have given much higher tolls which could not be confirmed
In Yemen on Friday, security forces and pro-government loyalists clashed with crowds demanding an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 32-year rule. At least five people were killed and dozens wounded.
Saleh, a U.S. ally against a Yemen-based al-Qaida wing that has launched attacks at home and abroad, is struggling to end month-old protests flaring across his impoverished country.
Here’s a review of the challenges Bahrain’s unrest could pose for U.S. policymakers:
What interests does the United States have in Bahrain?
The island nation serves as the base for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which oversees more than 30,000 U.S. personnel across the region. The Fifth Fleet is responsible for operations in the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, Yemen, Somalia, and East Africa–a crucial and unstable region. Bahrain also hosts land-based U.S. Patriot missile installations. What’s more, Bahrain is located directly across the Gulf from Iran, a major U.S. adversary suspected of trying to develop nuclear weapons.
As we’ve already seen from the precedent of Egypt, the unrest in Bahrain could also have a destabilizing effect on the wider region. The protesters are mostly members of the country’s Shi’ite majority, who oppose the ruling Sunni minority. So Iran’s Shi’ite government may see the popular revolt in Bahrain as a chance to increase its influence. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia–connected to Bahrain by a bridge–has a large Shi’ite minority in its eastern districts, who could potentially be inspired by events in Bahrain to rise up against their own Sunni regime.
How might those interests be affected if the government is toppled?
The ruling al-Khalifa dynasty has long been a key U.S. ally: it has co-operated in efforts to fight terrorism in the Middle East and push back against Iran’s growing regional influence. And Bahrain’s rulers have permitted the American military to site bases and missiles within the country, in return for U.S. guarantees of security. A new government, especially if it contained Islamist elements, might not support the U.S. military presence. That would likely force the Pentagon to solicit cooperation from another Gulf state.
But no one can yet say for sure if the American military presence would be a collateral casualty of a change of power in Bahrain. “It is not a foregone conclusion that they would want the Fifth Fleet out,” Marina Ottaway, the director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told reporters. “Bahraini Shi’ites are not anxious to be annexed by Iran and having a U.S. presence there would be a guarantee.”
How is the Obama administration handling things so far?
Cautiously. So far, U.S. diplomats have confined themselves to public condemnations of the government’s violent crackdown, stopping shy of any endorsement of the protesters’ demands for regime change. “Bahrain is a friend and an ally and has been for many years,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has told reporters. “We call on restraint from the government, [and] to keep its commitment to hold accountable those who have utilized excessive force.”