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Mullen in Bahrain as protests surge

Mullen in Bahrain as protests surge
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing regarding a Defense Department report on the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy concerning homosexuals in the military on Capitol Hill in Washington on December 2, 2010. UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg | License Photo

MANAMA, Bahrain, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- The highest-ranking U.S. military officer arrived in Bahrain Thursday to ascertain the ruling family's intentions amid surging anti-regime protests, he said.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen's visit, part of a six-nation regional tour, sought to reassure the Persian Gulf island nation, a strategic U.S. ally, but also "to understand where the leaderships of these countries are going, and in particular in Bahrain," Mullen told reporters before arriving in the Bahraini capital, Manama.

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Mullen is to meet King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, whom the United States praised for taking "positive steps" to reach out to protesters after deadly violence last week.

Security forces opened fire at protesters last Thursday and Friday, killing at least seven and wounding more than 200 as thousands defied the government and marched toward Pearl Square, a roundabout and public square in Manama's financial district that has been the site of the anti-government protests.

U.S. President Barack Obama condemned the use of violence against the protesters and Prince Salman pulled the military off the streets.

King Hamad Wednesday freed 308 political prisoners and pardoned two other men who were in self-imposed exile. The country has longstanding tensions between a Shiite majority and a king and ruling class of the Sunni minority.

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As anti-government protests grew, Bahrain's largest trade union joined the Shiite opposition Thursday to pressure the government to accept sweeping reforms.

Mullen -- principal military adviser to Obama and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- said the demonstrations in Bahrain and other Middle East and North Africa countries showed that the al-Qaida terrorist group was a "bankrupt" organization, unable to accomplish with "violence and bloodshed" for years what peaceful popular demonstrations have done in weeks,.

"Those that have asserted themselves in these countries -- those who have been oppressed and who seek opportunity, freedom, better lives -- those kinds of things ... from my perspective, they are headed in the exact opposite direction from what al-Qaida seeks," Stars and Stripes quoted Mullen as saying.

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