- Associated Press - Sunday, February 20, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — Arab and Muslim leaders facing pro-democracy protests need to lead the way rather than resist reform, a senior U.S. diplomat said Sunday while condemning violent crackdowns against demonstrators in Libya, Algeria and Yemen.

Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the Obama administration was “very concerned” about reports that Libyan security forces had fired on peaceful protesters in the eastern city of Benghazi. A Libyan physician told the Associated Press that at least 200 had been killed in six days of demonstrations against the regime of Moammar Gadhafi.

“We’ve condemned that violence,” Ms. Rice told “Meet the Press” on NBC. “Our view is that in Libya, as throughout the region, peaceful protests need to be respected.”

Al Jazeera television reported Sunday that protesters in Benghazi had seized army vehicles and weapons, that the police academy had been set ablaze and that some soldiers had joined the demonstrators. Libya’s response to opposition demonstrations is shaping up to be the most brutal since uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt began spreading across the region.

Ms. Rice said President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top administration officials last week pressed the government of Bahrain to back off after an assault by police on protesters in the capital’s Pearl Square. Five were killed and some 230 wounded after riot police stormed the demonstrators’ makeshift camp at night, wielding clubs and firing tear gas.

“We’ve been very clear with our partners in Bahrain that they ought to exercise restraint, that there’s no place for violence against peaceful protesters there or anywhere else,” Ms. Rice said. She said Bahrain officials apparently had responded, citing reports that military forces had been withdrawn from Pearl Square and jubilant protesters had returned.

Ms. Rice said Bahrainian officials had begun a “real effort” at dialogue with the opposition.

Asked if Bahrainian King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s pro-U.S. government could survive the protests, Ms. Rice said, “I wouldn’t want to be in the business of predictions in this very volatile environment.” She added that Mideast leaders need to respect calls for reform and “need to get ahead of it by leading rather than being pushed.”

Ms. Rice rejected allegations that the White House has been inconsistent, for example, by pressuring Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign while standing by Bahrain’s King Hamad. If U.S. policy differs between countries, she said, it is because the situations are different.

“We are not pushing people out or dictating that they stay,” she said. “What we’re doing is we’re saying consistently across the board that there are universal human rights that need to be respected.”

Ms. Rice downplayed concerns raised by the risk that the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, tightly controlled under Mr. Mubarak, would gain influence in a newly democratic Egypt. The newspaper USA Today, in an interview with a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman last week, reported that the group was seeking more political power and planned to use it to push for laws that would punish gays, require women to wear headscarves and condemn adulterers to death by stoning.

“First of all, there is no indication that the Brotherhood is going to dominate Egyptian politics,” she said. “We have faith in the people of Egypt, and we have faith in democracy.”

Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, said Sunday that the United States has to recognize that it will have limited influence over Egypt’s future political course. “The military has right now the ball in their court,” Mr. Lugar told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Mrs. Clinton, appearing on ABC’s “This Week” in an interview taped Friday, rejected criticism that the Obama administration has pulled back from President George W. Bush’s support for democracy and human rights in Egypt and elsewhere.

“That’s just not the case,” Mrs. Clinton said. “There is no debate that, for 30 years, Republican and Democratic administrations alike sent the same message to President Mubarak and the regime, that they had to change.”

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