World Middle East

Bahrain expelling top U.S. official for meeting with Shiite group

In slap, Bahrain says it will expel U.S. official
Decision by Bahrain to expel U.S. official called 'surprising'
Expelled U.S. diplomat 'intervened flagrantly,' Bahrain claims

Bahrain announced Monday that it was expelling a top State Department official for meddling in its affairs, sharpening tensions between the Obama administration and a strategically important Persian Gulf ally.

The state-run Bahrain News Agency said the government had declared Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor, persona non grata because he had "intervened flagrantly" in its internal affairs.

Malinowski had "held meetings with a particular party to the detriment of other interlocutors, thus discriminating between one people, contravening diplomatic norms and flouting normal interstate relations," the news agency said.

The Obama administration depends on Bahrain, which is host to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Yet relations have been strained by U.S. efforts to work out a political accommodation between the Sunni Muslim monarchy and its restless Shiite Muslim majority.

Malinowski held meetings Sunday with Wefaq, a moderate Shiite group. 

U.S. officials quickly reached out to Bahraini officials in hopes of avoiding an embarrassing expulsion.

"He remains in Bahrain," Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters early Monday afternoon. "Our team is in close touch on the ground ... to figure out exactly what's happened here."

On Monday evening, the department acknowledged that Bahrain intended to follow through with the expulsion, and accused the country of violating diplomatic practice.

Psaki said in a statement that the administration was "deeply concerned" over the decision to demand Malinowski's immediate departure. She said the trip was coordinated "far in advance" and encouraged by the Bahraini government, "which is well aware that U.S. government officials routinely meet with all officially recognized political societies."

"Contrary to our longstanding bilateral relationship and in violation of international diplomatic protocol, the government insisted -- without advance warning and after his visit had already commenced -- to have a Foreign Ministry representative present at all of Malinowski's private meetings with individuals and groups representing a broad spectrum of Bahraini society, including those at the U.S. Embassy," her statement said.

U.S. officials were caught by surprise by the Bahraini move. It came at a moment when the monarchy and Wefaq seemed to be making headway toward an agreement that would open the way to Wefaq taking part in parliamentary elections expected in the fall.

Malinowski's trip had been discussed with Bahraini officials for some time, said Stephen McInerney, executive director of Project on Middle East Democracy, who had discussed the visit with Malinowski a few days ago.

"This is very surprising and doesn't bode well for there being progress in the next few weeks," said McInerney.

It was "probably safe to assume" that the move was initiated by hard-liners in the government, who are reluctant to give Shiites greater political leverage, McInerney said.

Malinowski was a senior official of Human Rights Watch before entering government this year, and in that role was an outspoken advocate for greater rights for the Shiite minority. He had been denied entry to Bahrain while serving in his last job and had been arrested in Bahrain by mistake when he appeared at a protest, McInerney said.

He said Malinowski's goal in this trip was to urge both sides to take advantage of the current opportunity to negotiate.

The U.S.-Bahraini relationship has been a difficult one. Neither the government nor the opposition believes the U.S. government is entirely on its side.

 For foreign policy news, follow @richtpau on Twitter

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

5:32 p.m. July 7: This post has been updated with a new State Department statement acknowledging that Malinowski is being expelled.

This article was originally posted at 3:56 p.m.

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