By Andrew Quinn
PARIS (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Saturday hailed Gulf Arab nations for leading the charge on Libya, seeking to bolster ties that are under strain as allies such as Saudi Arabia assess the U.S. stance toward protests shaking the region.
Clinton, in Paris for a conference to determine the next steps against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, said Washington viewed Arab countries and particularly those in the Gulf as key to the campaign's success.
"We have said from the start that Arab leadership and participation in this effort is crucial," Clinton told a news conference, saying the United States looked to Arab leaders for continued support.
The United States has seen ties with the Gulf's Sunni Muslim monarchies shaken by events in Bahrain, where violent protests by the kingdom's Shi'ite majority have forced the king to call in reinforcements from Saudi Arabia and other neighbors and to declare a state of emergency.
The United States has urged Bahrain's royal family to engage in real political dialogue with its opponents, a step that has raised anxiety in Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia whose oil-rich eastern region also has a large and sometimes restive Shi'ite population.
Political analysts say the Bahrain crisis has helped push the U.S.-Saudi relationship into dangerous territory as the world's top military power and its top oil producer make very different calculations about the impact of the political change washing over the Middle East.
UNITED AGAINST GADDAFI -- AND AGAINST IRAN
Despite these tensions, the Arab League has backed western-led efforts to get tough on Gaddafi and two Gulf countries -- the United Arab Emirates and Qatar -- may help with military support against a leader they had long regarded with suspicion.
Clinton, who met the foreign ministers of both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates while in Paris, underscored shared fears about Iran, the region's Shi'ite heavyweight which has sparked international concern over its nuclear ambitions.
"The United States has an abiding commitment to Gulf security and a top priority is working together with our partners on our shared concerns about Iranian behavior in the region," she said.
"We share the view that Iran's activities in the Gulf, including its efforts to advance its agenda in neighboring countries, undermines peace and stability."
Political analysts say Saudi Arabia's deep suspicion of Iranian meddling has been one reason for its military intervention in Bahrain -- spurred in part by fears of a Shi'ite-led government emerging on its side of the Gulf.
The United States, which has sought to "get in front" of pro-democracy protests across the region, criticized Bahrain's violent political crackdown this week
But Clinton on Saturday said the United States also recognized Bahrain's "sovereign right" to call in security help from its neighbors and said the real goal was a credible, peaceful political process that can address all parties' concerns.
"We have made clear that security alone cannot resolve the challenges facing Bahrain," Clinton said. "Violence is not and cannot be the answer. A political process is."
(Editing by David Cowell)