By Andrew Quinn and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Monday urged Saudi Arabia to show restraint after it sent troops to neighboring Bahrain in a move some analysts said showed the limits of Washington's influence in the region.
The deployment of 1,000 Saudi troops, at the request of Bahrain's Sunni royal family, came two days after Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited the island kingdom and pressed its rulers to implement political reforms to defuse tensions with the Shi'ite Muslim majority.
The United States, which fears Shi'ite Iran could try to exploit the instability in Bahrain, was cautious in its response to the troop deployment, neither criticizing nor explicitly welcoming it.
"This is not an invasion of a country," White House spokesman Jay Carney said after Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf governments sent troops and police to the tiny kingdom hit by spreading Shi'ite unrest.
"We believe political dialogue is the way to address the unrest that has occurred in the region in Bahrain and in other countries and not to in any way suppress it," Carney said.
The turmoil in Bahrain, a small but important U.S. ally and home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, comes as Washington struggles to formulate a strategy in response to political unrest that has already toppled U.S.-allied governments in Egypt and Tunisia, led to violent protests in Yemen and a bloody rebellion against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Saudi Arabia, whose Sunni ruling dynasty is closely allied both with Bahrain's royal family and with the United States, sent a column of armored troop carriers into Bahrain on Monday to protect government facilities after mainly Shi'ite protesters overran police and blocked roads.
"We urge the government of Bahrain, as we have repeatedly, as well as other GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries, to exercise restraint," Carney added.
The Gulf Cooperation Council comprises Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
BAHRAIN REJECTING U.S. ADVICE?
Political analysts said the Saudi military move suggested Bahrain's royal family had rejected U.S. pleas to work with protesters demanding reforms.
"What this means is that the government of Bahrain has decided to take a hard line," said Marina Ottaway, head of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank in Washington.
"There has been a struggle in terms of policy advice between U.S. and Saudi Arabia. ... The U.S. has been trying to get the Bahraini government to respond by negotiation, by reform and by dialogue. The Saudis have been saying that they have to put the uprising down. They have decided to listen to the Saudis."
The United Arab Emirates said it was sending about 500 police to help maintain order, and other neighbors including Oman and Kuwait were considering sending at least token forces to support the intervention, diplomats said.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank, said Bahrain's decision was a rebuff of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who on Saturday urged the kingdom's leaders to take greater steps toward reform.
"This points to what I call a crisis of efficacy in American foreign policy," he said. "We repeatedly say that we want certain things to happen and then they don't happen in the Middle East and it makes us look all the weaker."
European and U.S. national security officials said the Saudi troops may be used to patrol the streets in Bahrain and political analysts said Saudi Arabia's intervention was a signal both at home and abroad that it would not tolerate a Shi'ite overthrow of the monarchy.
Saudi Arabia has faced small protests by Shi'ite residents in its own Eastern Province, source of much of the wealth of the world's number one oil producer, and wants to make clear the limits of political change, analysts said.
"They are clearly sending a signal to Bahrain protesters that you better moderate your expectations or else there's going to be bloodshed," said Ken Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
"What the Saudis are saying (to the United States) is: 'We care about this more than you do and we will do what is necessary to protect our interests in Bahrain. And we expect you to respect our greater interests in Bahrain."
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Patricia Zengerle and David Alexander; editing by Ross Colvin and Cynthia Osterman)