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US faces difficult situation in Bahrain, home to US Fifth Fleet

The US has important strategic interests in Bahrain, including the US Navy's Fifth Fleet – patrolling oil shipping lanes, keeping an eye on Iran, and involved with the war in Afghanistan. But US officials also worry about Bahrain's violent response to pro-democracy demonstrators.

By Staff Writer / February 19, 2011

Protesters gather at the Pearl Square in Manama, capital of Bahrain, on Friday. On Saturday, Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa ordered all military troops and vehicles to pull out from the streets of the country with immediate effect, the official news agency BNA reported.

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As it was during the early days of the mass antigovernment uprising in Egypt, the United States finds itself in a tricky position regarding Bahrain.

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  • Graphic Bahrain
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

Just two months ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pronounced herself “very impressed by the progress that Bahrain is making on all fronts – economically, politically, socially.”

“There seems to be a strong broadly-held commitment to democracy,” she said at a town hall meeting in Manama, Bahrain’s capital and largest city.

Bahrain protests: Five key facts

That was before pro-democracy demonstrators filled the streets and government forces responded with deadly force, killing at least four people and sending dozens to hospitals. (Thousands of protesters demanding political and social reforms gathered again Saturday, although security forces let them do so without reacting.)

For years, the US has considered Bahrain an important ally in the region. As with Egypt, the US has sold advanced military equipment to the kingdom – including fighter aircraft, attack helicopters, and battle tanks (some of which were used to confront demonstrators). Last year, the US provided around $20 million in military aid to Bahrain.

Perhaps more critical, Bahrain also is the homeport for the US Fifth Fleet.

From there, US warships and contingents of US Marines can keep an eye on – and, if necessary, rattle sabers – close to oil shipping lanes, Iran, and the increasing activity of pirates. (It was reported Saturday that an ocean-going sailboat with four Americans aboard had been hijacked by pirates.)

With about 30 ships (including two aircraft carriers) the Fifth Fleet patrols the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the east coast of Africa.

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