By Arshad Mohammed
MANAMA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gently pressed Bahrain on human rights on Thursday as he praised security cooperation with the Gulf monarchy, where the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is based.
Rights groups accuse Bahrain of failing to implement reforms to give its majority Shi'ites a bigger voice in government. They also accuse security forces of using torture against opponents and discriminating against Shi'ites, charges Bahrain denies.
Sporadic violence targeting Bahrain's security forces has continued since pro-democracy, Shi'ite-led protests in 2011 were put down by the Sunni-ruled kingdom with help from Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia.
At a news conference, Kerry was circumspect in addressing human rights in Bahrain.
"Bahrain is a critical security partner of the United States," Kerry said.
"Here, as in all nations, we believe that respect for human rights and an inclusive political system are essential in order to allow citizens to be able to reach and live out their full potential.".
Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa defended his nation's rights policies and said activist Zeinab al-Khawaja, who is serving a two-month prison sentence with her child for tearing up a photo of the king, would be freed although the case against her will continue to be pursued.
Sheikh Khaled also criticized Iran for its recent ballistic missile tests and accused it of "hegemonic interventions through proxies in several parts of our region," a reference to Iranian support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's civil war, for the Houthis in the Yemen conflict and for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Concerns about Iranian behaviour are the underlying reason for Kerry's visit to the region as well as for a summit in Riyadh mmit that President Barack Obama will attend with the GCC -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain -- on April 21.
That summit aims to reassure Arab states of U.S. support and protection following the July 14 nuclear agreement under which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.
Other topics to be covered in Riyadh include ending the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and fighting Islamic State.
Kerry, who briefly visited U.S. naval forces in Manama and climbed aboard U.S. vessels to speak to U.S. sailors, said U.S. and allied navies had interdicted four arms shipments believed to be from Iran in recent months.
The U.S. military said on Monday that Navy ships in the Arabian Sea intercepted and seized an arms shipment from Iran likely bound for Houthi forces in Yemen.
"We call on Iran to help us end the war in Yemen, not prolong it, help us end the war in Syria, not intensify it," Kerry said.
The United States provides support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis.
(Reporting and writing by Arshad Mohammed and Sami Aboudi; Editing by Angus MacSwan)