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Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Washington must expand efforts for political and economic reforms in places such as Bahrain. “There is an urgency to this,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

WikiLeaks, the secret-sharing website, has released new State Department cables detailing basic Bahraini foreign policy and concerns about regional powerhouse Iran. One intriguing cable consists of questions sent by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, asking the embassy to evaluate the leadership potential of the country’s top princes.

The cable includes questions about relationships between the princes, their influence on government, views of the United States and whether any of them have histories of drug or alcohol use. There is no record of any answers.

The protesters had called for the monarchy to give up control over top government posts and all critical decisions and address deep grievances by Shi’ites, who claim they face systematic discrimination and poverty and are blocked from key roles in public service and the military.

Shi’ites have clashed with police before over their complaints, including in the 1990s. But the growing numbers of Sunnis joining the latest demonstrations surprised authorities, said Simon Henderson, a Gulf specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The Sunnis seem to increasingly dislike what is a very paternalistic government,” he said. “As far as the Gulf rulers are concerned, there’s only one proper way with this and that is: be tough and be tough early.”

The Bahrain violence forced the cancellation of a lower-tier open-wheel race in Bahrain for Friday and Saturday, and leaves in doubt the March 13 season-opening Formula One race at the same track.

Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone said he will decide next week whether to proceed with the race. On Friday, he said he hoped the unrest “all blows away” so the event can be run as scheduled.

“Let’s wait and see because we don’t know what the protests are really about. We’ve never — ever, ever — been involved in religion and politics and we don’t make decisions based on those things,” Ecclestone told the BBC. “Because people [were] killed, nobody’s happy with that I’m sure. In these parts there have always been skirmishes, so let’s hope it’s no more than that.”

Barbara Surk in Manama and Brian Murphy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.