The United States Navy headquarters in Bahrain, the tiny Persian Gulf nation whose capital was rocked on February 17 by a violent police crackdown on anti-government protesters, oversees warships and combat aircraft that carry out long-range missions across Afghanistan and Iraq, conduct antipiracy patrols off the Horn of Africa — and keep a wary eye on the activities of a bellicose Iran.
But the Fifth Fleet compound itself looks like little more than a modern office park in a quiet neighbourhood of Manama, the capital, whose piers occasionally host a warship but never a sustained presence of hulking vessels comparable to bases in, say, Norfolk, Va., or Yokosuka, Japan.
Day by day, the Fifth Fleet is at sea and in the air, across 2.5 million square miles of water. In Manama, a city that is more open and socially welcoming to foreigners than those in much of the restrictive Arab world, American personnel live out in the community, and not in isolation. And thus far, Navy officers are quick to point out, the street protests have given voice to a disenfranchised Shiite majority's complaints about Bahrain's leadership — but the United States has not been cast as a villain, despite six decades of close ties with the governing Sunni elite.
“We are monitoring what's going on,” said Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost, the Fifth Fleet spokeswoman. “The protests and demonstrations are not against the United States or the United States military or anything of that nature.”
Military personnel, Defence Department civilians, contractors and their families — numbering about 6,100 in total — have been advised to avoid areas where the protests were taking place, but as of late February 17 there was no order to evacuate dependents.
The Navy has had a presence in Bahrain since Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, well before it took over a British army base east of Manama, in 1971, when the country achieved full independence.
The 100-acre naval base is in Juffair, a suburb six miles from Pearl Square in the centre of the capital, where thousands of mostly Shiite protesters were attacked by security forces early February 17 morning. Though the base is physically separated from its piers, Ms. Stride said there was “no concern” about being cut off if protests were to widen. The broad mission of the Fifth Fleet includes combat, counterterrorism, air support for the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, antipiracy efforts and military exercises with regional allies, including Bahrain.
Much of the fleet's time is spent watching Iran's two navies — the more professional Iranian state fleet and the less predictable Revolutionary Guard navy that has harassed American warships in recent years.
The United States and Bahrain signed a 10-year defence pact in 1991 that includes American training of Bahraini forces; it was renewed in 2001, according to a Congressional Research Service report. The Fifth Fleet's area of responsibility includes waters that touch 20 countries along the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Oman and parts of the Indian Ocean. The area includes the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab el Mandeb at the southern tip of Yemen — all strategic passages for international shipping.
(Thom Shanker reported from Washington, and J. David Goodman from New York.)— © New York Times News Service