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Bahrain unrest: U.S. lobbying effort preceded easing of crackdown on protesters

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Thousands of people came to celebrate their symbolic victory as protesters in Bahrain took back Pearl Square. (Feb. 19)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 10:26 PM

The apparent suspension of a police crackdown on Bahraini demonstrators followed two days of lobbying by the Obama administration, which leaned on the country's leaders to exercise restraint amid fears that the unrest would be exploited by radical groups with ties to Iran, according to current and former U.S. government officials with detailed knowledge of the events.

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The White House's efforts were complicated by deep divisions within the Bahraini government as hard-liners, having witnessed the collapse of military-backed governments in Egypt and Tunisia, sought to quickly crush the protest movement before it became more powerful. Bahrain also faced pressure from Persian Gulf neighbors who fear similar uprisings from their own Shiite populations, the sources said.

Security forces pulled back from Manama's Pearl Square as Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa announced the start of a dialogue with the country's mainly Shiite-led opposition movement. The White House had been working quietly for several days to undergird efforts by the crown prince and a small group of other Bahraini leaders to end the crackdown and begin implementing some of the political and economic changes demanded by protesters, according to two senior administration officials and a former intelligence official familiar with the diplomatic effort.

"It is a very delicate situation," said one of the administration officials, who like the others insisted on anonymity in discussing the U.S. diplomatic outreach to Bahrain, a close U.S. ally and home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. "The private message to the Bahrainis is that they cannot treat this event strictly as a security issue. They've got to have political reforms, and they've got to get their security forces to exercise restraint."

President Obama condemned the violence against protesters in a statement Friday, and later in the day he phoned King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, telling him that the country's stability depended on its willingness to respect the rights of protesters. Even as the two spoke, the president's message was underscored in a flurry of calls to leaders of Bahrain and other gulf countries. Among those involved were Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon, the officials said.

In a phone call with Crown Prince Salman on Saturday, Donilon reiterated Obama's condemnation of the attacks on protesters and expressed support for the steps taken to "show restraint and initiate dialogue with all segments of Bahraini society," according to a White House statement.

The crackdown was fueled in part by tensions between Bahrain's Sunni-led government and a Shiite majority that makes up more than 60 percent of the population. Bahraini officials have long feared an uprising by Shiites, citing links between some Shiite opposition groups and Iran. But U.S. officials sought to convince gulf counterparts that the greater danger is from spiraling violence that would drive more Shiite Bahrainis into siding with extremists.

A former U.S. intelligence official with experience in the region agreed, saying that continuing repression would backfire by radicalizing elements of the protest movement. "The failure of the United States to back the protests will fuel anger against the U.S. government and drive the Shia toward Iran," the former official said. "Someone will step in to exploit this situation, and Iran is already moving to do that."

The crackdown on protesters comes two months after Clinton publicly praised Bahraini officials for their tentative steps toward reform. Administration officials on Saturday defended their strategy of using a combination of public encouragement and private pressure to nudge authoritarian governments toward more progressive policies.

"If we had done more preaching we could have patted ourselves on the back as being morally superior, but it would have had no impact on the ground at all," the first administration official said.

Staff writer Scott Wilson contributed to this report.


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