Bahrain backs away from ban on two Shiite political groups

Bahrain backed down Friday from its threat to disband the country's main opposition party after unusually strong criticism from the United States that the strategic Persian Gulf nation was closing the door to promised political reforms.

One day after the Bahraini Justice Ministry said it would shut down two Shiite Muslim political parties, including the moderate Wefaq, the state-run news agency said the government would not act until it had finished investigations of the two groups.

Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid ibn Ahmed Khalifa also said on Twitter that the official statement from the Justice Ministry had been "incorrect" and that "all societies, including Al Wefaq, are encouraged to participate in elections and serve the people through parliament."

The Obama administration, a strong ally of the Bahraini government, had defended the parties as "legitimate political societies" and had urged reversal of the decision. U.S. officials also spoke privately with senior Bahraini officials and dispatched the chief U.S. diplomat for the region, assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, to Manama, the capital.

A U.S. official said late Friday that Bahrain's intentions remain somewhat murky because of the conflicting signals.

The Obama administration has come under growing criticism from human rights groups in the Middle East for not doing more to try to halt Bahrain's crackdown on the opposition.

In recent weeks, Bahrain's government has jailed hundreds of people arrested in overnight raids, curbed media criticism and fired government employees accused of taking part in protests. At least three people have died in detention, and human rights activists have posted video clips that they allege provide evidence of torture.

The Obama administration has been measured in its criticism, however. Washington seeks stability in Bahrain, which borders a close ally, Saudi Arabia, and which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

Mansoor Jamri, who was forced out of his job as editor in chief of the independent Al Wasat newspaper, called the U.S. policy "perplexing."

Until March 14, when the Saudis signaled their determination to maintain the status quo by sending in troops to quell protests, "the United States was enthusiastic about encouraging reforms within the current political system. Since then, they seem to have kept their heads in the sand," said Jamri, who is under investigation by the government on allegations of preparing false reports.

The Sunni-led Bahraini government and its powerful allies in Saudi Arabia believe the Shiite-dominated protests that erupted in February were aimed at toppling the monarchy and replacing it with a Shiite regime that would be more sympathetic to Iran.

U.S. officials haven't threatened any penalties for Bahrain's crackdown, such as a halt in arms sales, nor have they specified what reforms they want to see, as they did to bolster pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt. Rather, the administration has defended the monarchy's promise to hold a political dialogue with the opposition and has urged opposition leaders to take part.

Even as it protested Bahrain's statement Thursday that the Wefaq party would be disbanded, the State Department said it retained confidence in the government's planned reforms.

"We continue to believe the government is willing to take [reform] steps," said Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman. "And we believe there's a peaceful way forward here through dialogue."

The Obama administration has moved carefully in part because it seeks to strengthen relations with Saudi Arabia that have been strained by U.S. advocacy for political reform in the Arab world.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and national security advisor Tom Donilon this month visited Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Gates told reporters that he did not raise the issue of Bahrain with King Abdullah; the White House would not disclose whether Donilon had brought it up.

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