Politics

Violence in Bahrain Provides U.S. With Latest Foreign Policy Challenge

March 16: Shiite Bahraini youths haul debris into the streets to build barricades in the western village of Malkiya, Bahrain, in preparation for government-supporting forces which they expect will role into their Shiite Muslim village southwest of the capital of Manama.

March 16: Shiite Bahraini youths haul debris into the streets to build barricades in the western village of Malkiya, Bahrain, in preparation for government-supporting forces which they expect will role into their Shiite Muslim village southwest of the capital of Manama.  (AP)

With violence raging in Libya, the U.S. has cautiously responded to the latest Middle East hotspot to be engulfed by protests: Bahrain.

As the Gulf kingdom, a Middle East ally where the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is based, unleashed a deadly security crackdown, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that the country is "on the wrong track."

President Obama called King Hama bin Isa Al Khalifa and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to express deep concern over the violence and to urge "maximum restraint" and political dialogue.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have sent hundreds of troops to assist security forces in Bahrain.

Obama's intervention comes as the unrest in Bahrain has grown increasingly violent. 

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Soldiers and riot police expelled hundreds of protesters from a landmark square in Bahrain's capital on Wednesday, using tear gas and armored vehicles to try to subdue the challenge to the 200-year-old monarchy. At least five were reported dead.

Because the U.S. Navy's base in that volatile region is near the unrest, experts say the stakes are much higher for the U.S. there than they are in other hotpsots like Libya.

Clinton, traveling in the region, criticized Bahrain's response to protests.

"I think it's fair to say from everything we are seeing that the situation in Bahrain is alarming," Clinton said. "There is no way to resolve the concerns of the Bahraini people though the use of excessive force or security crackdowns."

One expert says the nightmare scenario for the U.S. is if Bahrain – or Saudi forces assisting – kill hundreds of protesters, as preserving their monarchies becomes job one.

"That is a scenarios that is gradually unfolding in Bahrain," retired Gen. Jack Keane said. "And that is clearly an unacceptable scenario for the United States in terms of our values and the conflict that's coming into play with our interests in the region; in buffing the Iranians' influence in the region."

Keane is concerned the U.S. may not be addressing the broader sectarian struggle with the Saudis on the side of the Bahrain monarchy and the Iranians backing the Shia protesters.

"The big picture concern in the Middle East has to be our strategic enemy there – are the Iranians, who are trying to achieve regional hegemony." Keane said.

And Shia protesters have taken to the streets in Iraq and Lebanon supporting the people over the monarchs. Meanwhile, Iran's president is trying to sound like the voice of reason.

"It is very graceless, inhumane and unacceptable to respond to people with guns, machine guns, cannons and tanks," Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said.

Fox News' Mike Emanuel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.