Manama, Bahrain - The United States military undermined efforts to improve relations with Bahrain’s Shiite majority and understated abuses by the Sunni royal family, according to one present and one former American government adviser and a Bahraini human rights advocate.
As Bahrain’s leaders struggle to hold back a rising popular revolt against their absolute rule, Washington’s posture toward the Shiite majority, which is spearheading the opposition, could prove crucial to future relations with this strategically valuable Persian Gulf nation. The United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based here, helping ensure the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz and the gulf, and safeguarding American interests in this volatile region.
Over the years, the military, according to the advisers and the human rights advocate, believed that King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and his court were reform-minded leaders who could advance democracy and preserve stability. That narrative contrasts sharply with the experience of the Shiites, as documented by human rights groups and some of the military’s own advisers.
“The problem has been that we have been doing everything we can to cuddle up to the Khalifas and have been consciously ignoring at best the situation of Bahraini Shiites,” said Gwenyth Todd, a former political adviser to the Navy in Bahrain from 2004 to 2007 who was also an adviser on Middle Eastern and North African affairs at the Pentagon and the White House. “We could find ourselves in a very bad situation if the regime has to make major concessions to the Shia, unless we change our tone.”
Ms. Todd, who was assigned as an informal liaison between the Navy and the Shiites, was dismissed from her duties in December 2007 in a formal letter that cited “unauthorized contact with foreign nationals,” “financial irresponsibility” and “disclosure of classified information.” But an American official who is familiar with the details of her case and is still working in Bahrain confirmed the details of Ms. Todd’s experience with the Navy and the details she provided, including a glowing letter of recommendation written by a high-ranking Navy official in 2009.
The government advisers and Nabil Rajab of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights said that over the years, the United States military was reluctant to believe the degree of the royal family’s discrimination against Shiites in politics, employment, housing and human rights. Mr. Rajab said that he was invited to speak in Washington and was told by two senators that the military encouraged them not to meet with him, or even to host him. He did not want to identify the senators because he thought it might embarrass them.
“The military here always took a position against the human rights community,” Mr. Rajab said. “The U.S. did not build up any good relations with the opposition. They always categorize them as fundamentalist or extremist in their reports, in order to justify their political position in support of the government.”
In Bahrain, as in Egypt and Tunisia, the United States finds itself again torn by its desire to preserve relations with autocratic leaders who back American foreign policy interests and by the danger of further alienating Arab public opinion by failing to promote democracy. At the moment, feelings toward the United States are neutral, and in some circles even positive, but they could slip toward hostile, opposition advocates said.
“If the United States does not modify its policy now to take into account the Shia, there is a danger that worries me, if we are seen as backing the government to the end,” said a United States government official in Bahrain who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.
A spokeswoman for the Fifth Fleet disputed criticism that the Navy discouraged attempts to engage with Bahrain’s Shiite community. “The U.S. Navy has a longstanding relationship of more than 60 years with Bahrain,” the spokeswoman, Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost, said in an e-mail. “We enjoy an active community relations program with the entire Bahraini community regardless of religion or ethnicity.”
Some former American diplomats in Bahrain said that it was possible the American military at times over the years sought to limit contacts between military personnel and Shiite community members to prevent service members from accidentally blundering into delicate political situations.
“The embassy had quite extensive contacts with the Shia community and human rights groups,” said Ronald E. Neumann, who served as United States ambassador to Bahrain from 2001 to 2004. “What we knew and reported was fully visible to the military, and there was no particular reason it should have tried to do our job in parallel.”
The United States Embassy in Bahrain is working hard behind the scenes to ease the crisis, and American officials say their pressure persuaded the Bahraini government to consider political reforms and halt the use of lethal force that killed seven demonstrators and wounded many more.
Khalil Ebrahim al-Marzooq, a leader in the opposition party Al Wefaq and one of 18 members of Parliament to resign in protest of the killings, said he appreciated those efforts. But some demonstrators have asked why the White House encourages Iranians to rise up for democracy but acts less forcefully in Bahrain’s case. Mr. Marzooq agreed the United States could do more.
“The United States should assertively emphasize the Bahrain Shiites should get their rights,” he said.
The royal family has long worried that Bahrain’s Shiites could be agents of Iran, a perspective reflected in some quarters of the American military as well, the advisers said.
Demonstrators have emphasized their loyalty to Bahrain and their commitment to religious pluralism, chanting that Sunni and Shiite are one. As an example of the policies that concerned Ms. Todd, she described one case in which the Navy asked her to organize a gift drive for the children of the poorest Shiite families. She called it a “Giving Tree.”
“I went out with the chaplain and we committed to provide whatever each child asked for,” she said in an e-mail. “I received a list of about 400 requests, some for gadgets, many for bicycles and toys, and some for bookcases, tables and desks. I committed to meet the requests on behalf of the Navy.”
But she said that she was ordered to cancel the promise by a commanding officer who thought it would upset the leadership. “I could not bring myself to do it,” she said. “I worried about the implications for Shia attitudes towards the Navy and feared it could lead to hatred and endanger our people. So I spent over $30,000 of my own money to fund the whole thing myself, in the name of the Navy. Big Brother was not happy, but the Shia never knew the story.”
Her account was confirmed by the present government adviser.
In another case, also confirmed by the one present and one former government adviser, the Navy balked at a chance to give a secure phone to a Bahraini human rights activist so that he could inform the military when an antigovernment protest was scheduled and it could observe the government’s response. The activist, with Al Wefaq, argued that the military was unaware of the true nature of the government because it did not witness the treatment of the Shiites by the police, a force made up primarily of foreigners recruited by the king because he does not trust Shiites to serve in the police or military.
“They ordered me to stop all contact with Shiites,” said the person involved in the case, who did not want to be identified for fear of being punished for discussing an internal military decision.
“They didn’t want any part of this, and they were not interested in knowing what was going on in the island.”
Nadim Audi contributed reporting from Manama, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.
This article "Dim View of U.S. Posture Toward Bahraini Shiites Is Described" originally appeared at The New York Times.
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