Protest Calls for Ouster of U.S. Navy From Bahrain

Times Staff Writer

MANAMA, Bahrain -- Chanting “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” protesters here Friday night angrily called for Bahrain’s government to oust the U.S. Navy from the base that serves as its regional headquarters in the Persian Gulf.

Initiated by the local Islamic political organization, the protest was the latest in a series of anti-U.S. demonstrations in recent months, including a rock-throwing march by several thousand people outside the U.S. Embassy in April that left a teenage protester dead after a skirmish with police. Two American sailors were beaten by a crowd a month later.

On Friday, more than 500 protesters rallied outside the United Nations complex along Embassy Row to urge the world body not to support any U.S. effort to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. With several television stations broadcasting the protest across the Arab world, speakers called for the government of this Persian Gulf island nation to withdraw permission for the U.S. to continue its military presence, which began shortly after World War II. “No to American Bases in Islamic Bahrain,” read one banner.

The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet is headquartered here, and U.S. and British Royal Air Force planes use the international airport as a regional hub. Without the facilities here, the U.S. ability to project military power in the region would be undercut.

In exchange for use of the base, the U.S. provides security for Bahrain against Iraq. The U.S. is also helping Bahrain upgrade its military force with training and equipment.

During the Persian Gulf War, Iraq launched Scud missiles at Bahrain. Still, the protesters said the U.S. presence here is politically unacceptable and endangers Bahrain’s sovereignty.

“This is the new colonialism,” said one protester, Suhyla Safqr, a dentist. “Americans are the new savages. We have so much anger at them. We will stop at nothing to stop them if they attack an Arab country.”

Arab intellectuals disagree on how a U.S. effort to topple Hussein would play in the region.

Mohammed Musfir, a political science lecturer, predicted an exponential growth in anti-U.S. sentiment and protests that could lead to governments asking the U.S. military to leave the bases it has used for decades.

“You will see demonstrations like never before in the Arab world,” Musfir said. “The anger has built up because of U.S. support for Israel against the Palestinians. A war with Iraq will make the anger ignite.”

But Hassan M. Saleh Ansari, director of the Gulf Studies Center at the University of Qatar, a regional think tank, said such predictions are exaggerated. He noted that the same sort of rhetoric was heard before a U.S.-led coalition forced Iraq to abandon Kuwait in 1991.

“We have heard this before,” Ansari said. “If the war is quick, I do not think the reaction will be severe.”

In Bahrain, King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa has opted to allow street demonstrations as part of his drive toward opening up the political process. Under his late father, such demonstrations were banned and political opponents were sometimes jailed.

Hamed endorsed the U.S. war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and ordered the flagship of Bahrain’s tiny navy to assist the U.S. in looking for Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders who might attempt to flee on the high seas.

Although the extent is difficult to gauge, there is sympathy in Bahrain for the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militant organization. And there are Bahrainis among the Al Qaeda and Taliban soldiers incarcerated by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after being captured in Afghanistan.

At Friday’s protest, cheers were heard for Hezbollah, and in the back streets of the souk district in Manama, the capital, there are posters that attempt to link the shooting deaths of Palestinian children with the spread of U.S. fast-food franchises in the region.

“The U.S. supports Israel in brutalizing Palestinians and allows it to ignore U.N. resolutions,” said businessman Habib Jamiri, standing in the crowd at the protest. “America says it wants Saddam out so that Iraq can have democracy. This is a lie. America wants Iraqi oil and to help the Israelis.”

Iraqi officials have sought to convince regional leaders that any U.S. attack on Iraq should be seen as an attack on all Islamic countries. Although the leadership in those countries, including the Bahraini king, has publicly distanced itself from that idea, the concept seems to have caught hold among at least a portion of the population.

“First it was Afghanistan, now Iraq, soon Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. America will not be happy until it destroys all of Islam,” said one protester, Sallah Salih, who works at a Chili’s restaurant.