BAHRAIN: Gates urges reform to keep Iran at bay amid renewed violence
Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged United States ally Bahrain to take "far-reaching steps" toward reform, and quickly, in order to prevent Iran from exploiting the rift between the Sunni monarchy and the largely Shiite protesters.
"I expressed the view that we had no evidence that suggested that Iran started any of these popular revolutions or demonstrations across the region," Gates said Saturday following talks with Bahrain's king and crown prince. Bahraini officials have repeatedly tried to discredit the anti-government protest movement by alleging links to Iran and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, a claim the protesters deny.
"But there is clear evidence that as the process is protracted, particularly in Bahrain, the Iranians are looking for ways to exploit it and create problems," Gates said, according to Agence France-Presse. "So I told them, in this instance, time is not our friend."
Gates' comments followed renewed violence in Bahrain, home to the U.S. 5th Fleet, on Friday when clashes erupted between pro- and anti-government groups just outside the capital of Manama.
Conflicting reports have emerged as to the nature of the force used by the government's side, but multiple media sources reported "hundreds" were injured when a planned march to the royal palace in Riffa erupted into clashes with security forces and government loyalists.
CNN described an apparently organized group of government supporters numbering in the hundreds carrying "swords, hatchets, metal pieces, cricket instruments and pieces of wood with nails hammered into them."
Bahrain's ambassador to the U.S., Houda Ezra Nonoo, described the violence as "sectarian clashes" between Sunni and Shiite elements in a statement.
While the Obama administration has not abandoned the ruling Khalifa family as an ally, the U.S. recently announced an investigation into the role Bahraini security forces have played in the violent crackdown against protests that has killed several people and injured hundreds more.
--Meris Lutz in Beirut
Photos, from top: Defense Secretary Robert Gates meets with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa in Bahrain (credit: AFP); largely Shia anti-government demonstrators have been demanding reform and, increasingly, regime change from the Sunni-dominated government (credit: Lin Noueihed/Reuters).