MANAMA, BAHRAIN, SEPT. 16 -- Ending weeks of public silence on the Persian Gulf crisis, the prime minister of this sheikdom that is hosting the U.S. Navy's regional command center lashed out at Iraqi President Saddam Hussein today, warning that there "is enough power here to eliminate the aggressor" and those supporting him.
Khalifa Bin Salman Khalifa, head of Bahrain's civil government and brother of the emir, said in an interview that he was hopeful Iraq's withdrawal could be achieved by peaceful means. But if that failed, he said, "we must leave open the possibility of military action."
"I think the liberation of Kuwait is a must," Khalifa said. "We definitely are not going to just sit and ask Saddam to leave. . . . As you know, the mass of troops here is not a joke."
Khalifa's remarks reflect a growing public militancy toward Iraq among some leaders of Saudi Arabia and neighboring sheikdoms, whose initial shock after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait has given way to open confidence, bolstered by the arrival of a massive U.S.-led military force and an Arab political realignment.
A small, wealthy island nation 12 miles off the coast of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has long been a strong if quiet U.S. ally. The ruling family has granted port rights to U.S. Navy ships, constructed a military airfield that now hosts U.S. and British warplanes, and encouraged Western businesses to invest in the island's economy, which is based on financial services.
But in a region that remains sensitive to U.S. support for Israel, and where the sheiks must deflect charges from radical Arab leaders that they are stooges for the West, gulf leaders have played down their U.S. ties. Khalifa's comments suggest that some of those leaders may now be prepared to choose sides more openly, partly to convince the U.S. public that its troops are welcome in the region.
While Khalifa and other government officials stopped short of endorsing a formal, long-term security alliance with the United States, they said the present crisis would yield an improved economic and political relationship between the West and oil-rich gulf states -- including cooperation in keeping oil prices low and investment of oil profits in the United States.
"Those who bring peace must benefit from the economic wealth of this area," said Bahrain's information minister, Tariq A. Muayyid. "The benefits will manifest themselves commercially when this crisis is over."
Khalifa said, "We feel there is a mutual interest between the gulf and the Western countries and the United States" in moderating oil prices. He also expressed support for those in the West who advocate that, in addition to securing its withdrawal from Kuwait, a goal of the U.S.-led multinational force should be to deprive Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. "We would not live with a force like that after his withdrawal," he said. "We would reconsider Iraq as a whole."
Bahraini officials said they decided to end their public silence about the gulf crisis and the arrival of U.S. and other forces on the island because they wanted to thank President Bush openly for sending troops to the region and to convince the American public that, as Khalifa put it, "This is not Vietnam -- you are among friendly countries."
The exact size of Western forces on the island has not been disclosed, but besides hosting the U.S. naval command center -- as it did before the crisis -- Bahrain also has invited U.S. and British air force fighter jets to use a military air base constructed in recent years on the south of the island.
One of the first gulf states to discover and produce oil, Bahrain is now close to exhausting its reserves. But with assistance from Saudi Arabia, it constructed a large refinery for Saudi oil.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Bahrain used its oil revenues and its relatively open and Westernized culture to attract and build a booming banking and money-trading sector. Executives say confidence in the island's future as a safe haven has been eroded by the crisis and that their business is down by as much as 75 percent.