Amid deepening sectarian conflict in this Arab kingdom, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was to consult privately with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and to urge new progress toward true democratic reform.
Before Gates's arrival Friday, government security forces reinforced by pro-regime mobs fired rubber bullets and tear gas to scatter protesters near the royal palace as conflict deepened between Sunni Muslims backing the ruling system and Shiites demanding it give up its monopoly on power.
Gates is the first member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet to visit since Bahrain's protest movement began in mid-February. He flew to Bahrain from Brussels, where he attended a NATO meeting on Afghanistan.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters traveling with Gates that the defense secretary's aim is to reassure Bahrain's rulers that the U.S. remains committed to a partnership that includes Bahrain's hosting of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Gates also wants to encourage a national dialogue on political reform, Morrell said.
The unrest here poses a special challenge for the Obama administration, in part because of the strategic importance of this island nation as host to the 5th Fleet and in part because of the prospect of increased Iranian influence here as a regional Shiite power.
A senior defense official traveling with Gates said the administration is concerned about the situation in Bahrain but does not believe the country is on the brink of revolution. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss delicate diplomatic matters, said the U.S. also does not believe Iran has been playing a significant role in promoting anti-government demonstrations.
The clashes in Manama on Friday broke out after an hours-long standoff between tens of thousands of demonstrators facing down lines of riot police and Sunni vigilantes carrying swords, clubs, metals pipes and stones. There is a sense in Bahrain that nearly a month of protests led by the Shiite majority to demand sweeping political reforms was veering toward sectarian street battles between the divided communities.
Shiites, who complain of discrimination, are also increasingly calling for the ouster of the Western-allied Sunni monarchy.
Some main opposition parties had called for Friday's march to be canceled, fearing Bahrain was moving dangerously close to full-scale sectarian battles after weeks of protests modeled on the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. On Thursday, students clashed at a school and Sunni groups burned a Shiite-owned supermarket and threatened other businesses.
Shiite youth groups ignored the appeals to call off the protest near the offices and compounds of Bahrain's king and other members of the ruling dynasty that has held power for more than two centuries.
Morrell said Gates plans to return to the Middle East soon to visit other Arab nations that are dealing with civil unrest and calls for democratic reform.