A U.S. fact-finding team in Bahrain wrapped up talks Wednesday to investigate workplace purges that have spurred calls to suspend a key trade pact over the Gulf nation's crackdown on protesters.
The firsthand inquest by the Department of Labor is in response to efforts by America's biggest labor group to force a stinging U.S. rebuke of Bahrain's rulers, who have crushed opposition groups but have avoided serious backlash from Washington because of strategic concerns.
Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, and its ruling monarchy is closely backed by another critical U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have dispatched troops to help Bahrain's Sunni monarchy battle Shiite-led protesters calling for greater rights.
The Labor Department has until December to complete a report on a complaint filed by the AFL-CIO, seeking to block the free-trade pact with Bahrain in retaliation for widespread dismissals of workers and union leaders with suspected ties to protesters.
Bahrain's majority Shiites began protests in February calling for reforms, including an end to the monarchy's monopoly on appointing top government officials. At least 35 people have died in the unrest, and hundreds have been purged from jobs or arrested, including some sentenced to life in prison or given death sentences for killing security forces.
The number of people pushed from their jobs is unclear. Bahrain's biggest labor group, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions, has put the figure as high as 2,500.
A statement Wednesday by Bahrain's government said 1,623 cases are pending before disciplinary councils, which were set up to review the dismissals of employees.
In possible reaction to the U.S. investigations, Bahrain's deputy prime minister, Sheik Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, urged for a "resolution" of the review of workers dismissed from jobs. The statement said the disciplinary councils have so far cleared 156 people for reinstatement and confirmed the dismissals of 174 employees.
In September, more than 100 workers returned to jobs at the state oil company.
Suspending the 5-year-old trade pact would have not have major financial effects _ the two-way trade is less than $1.5 billion a year _ but it would be seen as a direct blow to Bahrain's efforts to reassure international companies and investors.
The pact, which waives tariffs on industrial and consumer products, is just one of 17 such bilateral agreements with Washington. Others in the Middle East include Israel, Jordan and Oman.
In Bahrain's capital Manama, U.S. Embassy spokesman Bradley Niemann said the Labor Department envoys have held talks since last week with government officials, union representatives and workers. The mission was scheduled to end Wednesday.
In Washington, rights groups have urged the U.S. Congress to block a proposed $53 million arms sale to Bahrain.