Washington — The United States urged Saudi Arabia on Monday to show restraint after it sent troops to neighboring Bahrain in a move some analysts said showed the limits of Washington's influence in the region.
The deployment of 1000 Saudi troops, at the request of Bahrain's Sunni royal family, came two days after US Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited the island kingdom and pressed its rulers to implement political reforms to defuse tensions with the Shia Muslim majority.
The Pentagon said neither Gates nor Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who also recently visited Bahrain, had been given any indication that Saudi or other forces from the region would deploy to Bahrain.
The United States, which fears Shia Iran could try to exploit the instability in Bahrain, was cautious in its response to the troop deployment, neither criticizing nor explicitly welcoming it.
"This is not an invasion of a country," White House spokesman Jay Carney said after Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf governments sent troops and police to the tiny kingdom hit by spreading Shia unrest.
Colonel David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Pentagon had "communicated to all parties our concern regarding actions that could be provocative or inflame sectarian tensions."
The State Department sought to spread responsibility between the government of Bahrain and protesters. "Just as Bahrain gov't must show restraint and respect universal rights, members of opposition also must refrain from instigating violence," the State Department said in a message on Twitter late on Monday.
The department also urged US citizens to defer travel to Bahrain and suggested Americans there should leave due to the ongoing unrest. It also said in a statement that family members of US embassy staff were authorized to leave voluntarily.
It said that while protests have not been directed toward Westerners, US citizens should "avoid all demonstrations, as even peaceful ones can quickly become unruly and a foreigner could become a target of harassment or worse."
CREDIBLE POLITICAL REFORM
In Paris, a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity told reporters that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had told the United Arab Emirates' foreign minister that Washington believed the solution in Bahrain must come from credible political reform, and not from a military outcome.
The official spoke after talks with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan in Paris, where Clinton was participating in a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of Eight powers.
The turmoil in Bahrain, a small but important US ally and home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, comes as Washington struggles to formulate a strategy in response to political unrest that has already toppled US-allied governments in Egypt and Tunisia, led to violent protests in Yemen and a bloody rebellion against Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi.
Saudi Arabia, whose Sunni ruling dynasty is closely allied both with Bahrain's royal family and with the United States, sent a column of armored troop carriers into Bahrain on Monday to protect government facilities after mainly Shia protesters overran police and blocked roads.
"We urge the government of Bahrain, as we have repeatedly, as well as other GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries, to exercise restraint," Carney said. The GCC comprises the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
BAHRAIN REJECTING US ADVICE?
Political analysts said the Saudi military move suggested Bahrain's royal family had rejected US pleas to work with protesters demanding reforms.
"What this means is that the government of Bahrain has decided to take a hard line," said Marina Ottaway, head of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank in Washington.
"There has been a struggle in terms of policy advice between US and Saudi Arabia…The US has been trying to get the Bahraini government to respond by negotiation, by reform and by dialogue. The Saudis have been saying that they have to put the uprising down. They have decided to listen to the Saudis."
The United Arab Emirates said it was sending about 500 police to help maintain order, and other neighbors including Oman and Kuwait were considering sending at least token forces to support the intervention, diplomats said.
European and US national security officials said the Saudi troops may be used to patrol the streets in Bahrain. Political analysts said it was a signal Saudi Arabia would not tolerate a Shia overthrow of Bahrain's monarchy.
Saudi Arabia has faced small protests by Shia residents in its own Eastern Province, source of much of the wealth of the world's No. 1 oil producer, and wants to make clear the limits of political change, analysts said.
"They are clearly sending a signal to Bahrain protesters that you better moderate your expectations or else there's going to be bloodshed," said Ken Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
"What the Saudis are saying (to the United States is: 'We care about this more than you do and we will do what is necessary to protect our interests in Bahrain. And we expect you to respect our greater interests in Bahrain."