WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama extended US support Sunday for a "national dialogue" in Bahrain, and said it should be "inclusive, non-sectarian and responsive" to the people of the Gulf kingdom.
Obama’s statement came a day after King Hamad bin Issa Al-Khalifa reshuffled his cabinet and allowed the return to the country of an exiled opposition leader after 13 days of protests.
As protests continued Sunday in Bahrain, Obama welcomed the king’s changes and reaffirmation of his commitment to reform.
"The United States supports the national dialogue initiative led by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, and encourages a process that is meaningful, inclusive, non-sectarian, and responsive to the people of Bahrain," he said.
Bahrain, a tiny, oil-rich kingdom which has Sunni rulers governing over a restive Shia majority, houses the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Washington has sought to walk a fine line between supporting its strategic ally and backing the democratic aspirations of Bahrainis, who were inspired by uprisings and regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt.
"The dialogue," Obama continued, "offers an opportunity for meaningful reform and for all Bahrainis to forge a more just future together.
"As a longstanding partner of Bahrain, the United States continues to believe that Bahrain’s stability will be enhanced by respecting the universal rights of the people of Bahrain and reforms that meet the aspirations of all Bahrainis," Obama said.
Hassan Mashaima, the leader of a banned opposition party, returned home from self-imposed exile in Britain on Saturday to a hero’s welcome in Pearl Square, the focal point of the protest movement.
But on Sunday, thousands of Bahrainis marched in Manama calling for the fall of the dynasty, as 18 MPs from Al-Wefaq Shia opposition bloc resigned to protest the deaths of anti-regime demonstrators, seven of whom have been killed by security forces since the protests began February 14.
Earlier, the White House dispatched Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Bahrain. He visited Friday and reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to embattled King Hamad.
Mullen accused Iran of fomenting instability, but said Tehran was not behind the popular protests in several regional countries.
The United States is not alone in its careful approach to Bahrain.
Foreign ministers of the six-nation alliance of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Bahrain is a member, affirmed Thursday their political, economic, security and defense support for Bahrain.
The GCC members — Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — together sit on 45 percent of global crude reserves and just under a fifth of the world’s oil supplies.
Analysts say a spread of the Shia protests in Bahrain into the rest of the energy-rich Gulf States could be a major strategic victory for neighboring Shia Iran.
Bahrain, population 740,000, gained independence from Britain in 1971.
The Al-Khalifa family took control of Bahrain from the Persians in the late 1700s and soon after became a British protectorate.