The Obama administration pressed Bahrain to show restraint Thursday after a violent crackdown on demonstrators there forced U.S. officials to once again decide how hard to press a key ally in the Middle East.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged the Bahraini government to take action against security officials responsible for Thursday's attack, in which riot police charged demonstrators with clubs, shotguns and tear gas in a pre-dawn assault in the capital.
"We call on restraint from the government," Clinton told reporters. "We urge a return to a process that will result in real, meaningful changes for the people there."
The remarks followed a more strongly worded rebuke from Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who also had publicly pressed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down in the days before his ouster.
"Using tear gas, batons, and rubber bullets on peaceful protesters is the worst kind of response to a nonviolent demonstration," Kerry said in a statement. "I urge the government of Bahrain to put an end to the violence and allow the Bahrainis to voice their call for greater political freedom."
Bahrain, a country of 1.2 million inhabitants, has forged close ties with the United States as protection against Iran, its vastly larger and more powerful neighbor just across the Persian Gulf. The tiny island nation is home to the Navy's 5th Fleet as well as to the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.
The White House has been relatively subdued in its public statements about the unrest in Bahrain, in contrast with its vocal support for pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran and Egypt. On Thursday, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that the administration had expressed to Bahrain its "strong displeasure" after the violence.
This week's anti-government protests have been led by members of Bahrain's majority Shiite Muslim population. Many of the country's Shiites have ethnic or cultural ties to Iran, and Bahrain's predominantly Sunni Muslim government has told U.S. officials that Iran is seeking to stir up Shiite opposition for its own ends.
The violence early Thursday was a political embarrassment to an administration that has sought in recent months to publicly encourage Bahrain's modest attempts at political and economic reform. At a town hall meeting two months ago in the capital, Manama, Clinton praised King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa for "progress that Bahrain is making on all fronts - economically, politically, socially."
"I think that the commitment to democracy is paramount, and I've heard that from a broad range of your leaders and your citizens," she said Dec. 10.
On Thursday, Clinton telephoned her Bahraini counterpart, Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, to convey what she said were "deep concerns" about his government's repression of peaceful demonstrators.
"Bahrain is a friend and an ally and has been for many years,'' she said. "And while all governments have a responsibility to provide citizens with security and stability, we call on restraint.''
Clinton said she also stressed "how important it was that, given that there will be both funerals and prayers tomorrow, they not be marred by violence."
Staff writer Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.