WASHINGTON – The Obama administration expressed alarm over a violent crackdown on anti-government protesters in key U.S. ally Bahrain on Thursday as a wave of political upheaval moved across the Middle East.
And Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged governments in the region to move quickly on long-needed political and economic reforms.
Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with their counterparts in Bahrain, the longtime home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet and an anchor of U.S. defense strategy in the Mideast.
The outreach came as political unrest that toppled U.S.-backed leaders in Tunisia and Egypt spread to the Persoian Gulf and beyond.
Clinton, speaking to reporters after a closed-door briefing with senators, said she was redirecting $150 million in aid money to Egypt "to put ourselves in a position to support the transition there and assist with their economic recovery."
She said senior State Department and White house officials would travel to Egypt next week "to consult on how we can most effectively deploy our assistance."
On Bahrain, Clinton spoke with Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, to register Washington's shock and concern about the brutal crackdown overnight. Army patrols and tanks locked down the capital of the tiny Gulf kingdom after riot police fired tear gas and beat demonstrators demanding political reforms. At least four people were killed.
Clinton told reporters she "directly conveyed our deep concerns about the actions of the security forces" there. She noted that there would be funerals and prayer meetings on Friday and said she had expressed hope they "not be marred by violence."
She said Bahrain had long been a friend and ally and "we call on restraint from the government to keep its commitment to hold accountable those who have utilized excessive force against peaceful demonstrators and we urge a return to a process that will result in real meaningful changes for the people there."
Gates spoke by phone Thursday morning with Crown Prince Salman of Bahrain, deputy commander of Bahraini defense forces, said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.
Morrell gave no details about what Gates said, except that he "discussed the current security situation" with the prince.
Later in the day, Gates said the U.S. has been encouraging reforms in the region for some time.
"The truth is I think the U.S. has consistently — primarily privately, but also publicly — encouraged these regimes for years to undertake political and economic reforms because the pressures were building," Gates told a budget hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "And now they need to move on with it and there is an urgency to this."
Navy officials in the Pentagon and in 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain have said they are monitoring developments in Bahrain and that sailors, civilian staff and family members there have been advised to avoid protest sites. Officials have not reported any effects on their operations from to the unrest.
The 5th Fleet operates at least one aircraft carrier in the Gulf region at all times, along with an "amphibious ready group" of ships with Marines aboard. Their presence is central to a longstanding U.S. commitment to ensure the free flow of oil through the Gulf, while keeping an eye on a hostile Iran and seeking to deter piracy in the region.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke Thursday morning with Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command.
Elsewhere in the Mideast, several thousand Yemeni protesters defied appeals for calm from the military and the country's most influential Islamic cleric and marched through the capital on Thursday. Libyan protesters seeking to oust longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi defied a crackdown and took to the streets in four cities.
Associated Press writer Jim Abrams contributed to this report.