- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2006

An abrupt U.S. pullout from Iraq would have disastrous consequences for the region and could create a haven of terrorists, Bahrain’s ambassador to the United States, Naser M.Y. Al Belooshi, warned in an interview yesterday.

The unusually blunt message came from one of the United States’ closest allies in the Arab world, one that has long cultivated close ties with Washington and hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

“The biggest risk from our point of view is that America would just pull out before the Iraqis have the ability to defend themselves,” Mr. Al Belooshi told editors and reporters at The Washington Times. “Iraq would become a good place for terrorists to use as a base. You have to win this war.”

Like Iraq, Bahrain has a Shi’ite Muslim majority that has historically been ruled politically and economically by a Sunni Muslim minority. Moderate Sunni Arab regimes across the region have watched the deteriorating situation in Iraq with growing dismay, fearful that the Shi’ite-Sunni sectarian violence could spread.

Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has pressed for closer ties with the United States while steadily permitting greater democratic freedoms at home.

But Shi’ite and Sunni Islamist parties were the big winners in elections for the kingdom’s 40-seat lower house over the past month, and the Shi’ite opposition Islamic National Accord Association is boycotting the opening sessions of the new parliament this week to press for more seats in the Cabinet.

The ambassador said the big division in the region is between moderates and extremists of all sects, not between Sunnis and Shi’ites.

“There is much more interaction between Sunni and Shias in Bahrain than you see in Iraq,” he said. “I frankly don’t see a schism on religious lines because the lines of communication are open.”

“The people who have been elected in Bahrain are sometimes Islamists, but they are not extremists,” he added.

Mr. Al Belooshi acknowledged that the U.S. image had suffered across the Arab world in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. But he said public opinion in Bahrain turned against the United States in reaction to specific events, such as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and wasn’t a generalized rejection of U.S. and Western values.

“There should be more work done on America’s image, but this fluctuates. It is not a constant,” he said.

Bahrain, he said, would welcome improved U.S. ties and increased U.S. investment. The island kingdom was the only Arab state to contribute troops to an October naval exercise in the Persian Gulf by the U.S.-backed Proliferation Security Initiative.

The exercise, which included U.S., British, Italian, French and Australian forces, was strongly condemned by Iran, the rising Shi’ite power in the region in the wake of the Iraq war.

According to Power and Interest News Report, a private intelligence newsletter, “Bahrain wants to show a deep loyalty to the United States because it could claim for itself a role as a strategic partner in the region.

“By filling this role, it could gain geopolitical capital at the expense of other countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia,” the newsletter concluded.

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