By Erika Solomon
DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain floated the idea of expanding military bases within a bloc of Sunni-led Gulf Arab allies that helped it quash Shi'ite protests in March, while U.S. President Barack Obama criticized Manama over its crackdown.
Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid al-Khalifa said fear of Shi'ite Iran interfering in Bahrain may push the Gulf Cooperation Council to revise its military presence in Bahrain instead of pulling out when emergency law, imposed in March, ends on June 1.
"Any threat that any country would face would definitely, no doubt, affect its neighbors. Saudi Arabia is only 28 kilometers (17 miles) away from here. We are looking at the GCC force to be expanded, to have multi-bases everywhere in the GCC," he said in an interview with PBS Newshour.
"So whether they leave or stay or be restructured, that's what is to be discussed in the future," he said.
Bahrain's Sunni rulers imposed emergency law and called in troops from neighboring Gulf countries in March to quash protests led mostly by its Shi'ite majority, who are demanding democratic reforms. Some hardliners had called for a republic.
Obama on Thursday criticized the crackdown, saying that "mass arrests and brute force" were at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain's citizens, and would not make legitimate calls for reform disappear.
"The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail," Obama said in a Middle East speech.
"Bahrain is a long-standing partner, and we are committed to its security," Obama said. "We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law."
Non-Arab Shi'ite Iran, just across Gulf waters, has issued several statements condemning the GCC troops' presence in the country. Bahraini Shi'ites insist they have no ties to Iran.
A military court on Thursday sentenced nine people to 20 years in prison after they were convicted of kidnapping a policeman. One of the men sentenced was a prominent religious cleric and political activist.
International and local rights groups have criticized the government for the severity of its security sweep, in which masked troops manned checkpoints throughout the city and hundreds of people, mostly Shi'ite activists or politicians, were arrested. At least four detainees have died in custody.
Dozens of people have also disappeared, and hundreds of mostly Shi'ite workers have been fired from their jobs.
Government supporters have held two protests in the past week demanding security assurances after a man at a small protest at a check point on Tuesday drove his car into a group of policemen, wounding nine of them.
Some 1,000 protesters in a Sunni neighborhood of Manama rallied on Wednesday evening but several religious clerics urged them to return home.
Some of the demonstrators vowed to gather again after prayers on Friday, a day which has taken on great significance since pro-democracy protests began sweeping the Arab region. Protesters have used Friday prayers to mobilize larger crowds.
In his Newshour interview, Sheikh Khalid said that a security presence would still be high after emergency law is lifted despite the removal of tanks and military from the streets.
"There's no doubt that the police will be on their toes 24/7, because the time just after June 1 ... it's a very delicate period we want to ensure nothing goes wrong and we don't slide back to chaos."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)