BILAD AL QADEEM, BAHRAIN — The leader of this island kingdom's largest opposition party says that a future, democratic Middle East would eliminate the need for the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf.
"I believe that a democratic system inherently guarantees long-term stability and allows achieving cooperation between democracies," said Ali Salman, secretary-general of the Wefaq National Islamic Society.
"If this region sees the emergence of a democratic order, I think there will be real stability in the medium- and long-term. There would be no need for any [foreign] forces to be present to guarantee the flow of oil."
But in the short term, a U.S. Navy presence is important "to be sure that stability in this area is maintained," Mr. Salman said.
Bahrain, which has hosted the Navy's 5th Fleet since the mid-1990s, has frustrated the Obama administration, which has sought to preserve its alliance with the Sunni royal family while supporting the democratic hopes of the mostly Shiite opposition that has taken to the streets since February.
On Wednesday, hundreds of demonstrators made their boldest attempt in months to reclaim control of a central square in the capital, Manama, which was the symbolic hub of the protest movement after it began, the Associated Press reported.
Riot police used buses to block roads and flooded streets with tear gas to drive back the marchers before dawn Thursday.
Bahrain's Sunni rulers have clung to power, with some military help from Saudi Arabia, by cracking down on Shiites -- drawing only mild rebukes from the U.S.
Some Middle East analysts say that due to its Shiite majority, a fully democratic Bahrain might align itself with Iran's Shiite-dominated government.
Bahraini officials have claimed that Mr. Salman and other Shiite opposition leaders have ties to the Iranian regime. Sunni politicians say that during a meeting in March, as a Saudi-led force prepared to enter Bahrain, Mr. Salman threatened to ask Iran to help the opposition. Wefaq leaders say the remark was taken out of context.
In the interview, Mr. Salman said "the opposition in Iran must have the right to express themselves" and the regime "has to give the world guarantees that its [nuclear] program is peaceful."
But he refrained from criticizing Iran directly or comparing its violent suppression of the protests that followed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 2009 re-election to the Bahraini government's crackdown.
"I think the majority of Iranians accepted Ahmadinejad," Mr. Salman said, adding that he prefers the "more open" policies of the Iranian president's predecessor, Mohammad Khatami.
"The people of Iran, I think they choose an Islamic republic ... I must respect the Iranian people's [choice]," he said. "Any nation has the right to choose their system of government. ...What we are seeking is a civil state that respects the norms of human rights.
"We believe it must be a democratic system where the people have the choice to refuse Al-Wefaq if Al-Wefaq is not successful enough," Mr. Salman said. "If the people [choose] the communist party, I have to accept it."
Wefaq, which has long held a plurality in Bahrain's parliament, withdrew in March to protest the killing of demonstrators and the government's refusal to meet its demands on democratic reform.
Mr. Salman denied that Bahrain, where thousands of Saudis flock daily to drink alcohol, would become more religiously restrictive if Wefaq gained power, saying "you cannot force the people to do anything."
"This is not a problem for our thinking," he said of Bahrainis' freedom to drink. "We believe in Islam that the Muslim people must not drink. But if [someone] has not accepted this belief and he wants to drink, he will drink."
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