Unrest surging through the Arab world has so far taken no toll on the American military. But that could change if revolt washes over the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, long-time home to the U.S. Navy's mighty 5th Fleet and arguably the Middle East anchor of U.S. defence strategy.

The discontent that has spilled into the streets of Bahrain's capital, Manama, this week features no anti-American sentiment, but the U.S. has a lot at stake in preserving its dominant naval presence in the Gulf.

In announcing that it is “very concerned” about violence linked to the protests, the State Department on February 15 underscored Bahrain's strategic importance as a U.S. partner.

The 5th Fleet operates at least one aircraft carrier in the Gulf at all times, along with an “amphibious ready group” of ships with Marines aboard. Their presence is central to a longstanding U.S. commitment to ensuring the free flow of oil through the Gulf, while keeping an eye on a hostile Iran and seeking to deter piracy in the region.

Anthony Cordesman, a Mideast defence specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Bahrain has security services capable of handling protesters and potentially backed by neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

In the weeks leading up to popular revolts that toppled autocratic regimes first in Tunisia and then Egypt, Obama administration officials portrayed Bahrain as being on the right track toward democracy..

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