- The Washington Times - Monday, April 24, 2006

View from Bahrain

The tiny but strategic island nation of Bahrain is worried that political pressure might build on the United States to withdraw from Iraq before establishing a safe and secure government in Baghdad.

“The nation building is very, very important,” Muhammad Abdul Ghaffar, Bahrain’s minister of information, told editors and reporters at The Washington Times yesterday.

“It’s not a popular thing, but you should establish good government and a good political system and avoid a sectarian system because it will explode again.”

“Do not leave immediately,” he said. “This is a very delicate process.”

Mr. Abdul Ghaffar said his government is concerned with the political developments in Iraq, which only underscore the divisions among Kurds, Shi’ites and Sunnis.

“We live in a very difficult neighborhood,” he said.

Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, sits across the Persian Gulf from Iran and about 200 miles south of Iraq.

Mr. Abdul Ghaffar, who also serves as state minister for foreign affairs, said leaders in the Gulf region are unanimously opposed to Iran’s developing nuclear weapons but are uncertain how to stop the theocratic government from pursuing its nuclear ambitions.

“The mood in the region is not for going to war,” he said, when asked about the region’s position on a possible U.S. military strike to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. “There is concern about a nuclear Iran and to what extent it would be a threat to the region.”

Mr. Abdul Ghaffar also said Gulf governments would oppose sanctions on Iran because they could disrupt the region’s economies. He urged continued diplomacy.

“It is in our interests to talk and talk and talk,” he said.

“Hopefully,” he added, “we can help in Iraq, and hopefully, Iran will not challenge the world community.”

President Bush considers Bahrain a model Arab democracy, although the State Department has criticized the nation’s human rights practices.

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa came to power in 1999 and began transforming Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy. In 2001, nearly 95 percent of voters in Bahrain endorsed a National Action Charter that created an elected lower house of parliament and an upper house appointed by the king. Both chambers have 40 seats each.

Women made up more than half the voters in the 2002 election. Several female candidates ran for office, but none was elected. The king appointed six of the candidates to the upper house. Bahrain is preparing for another parliamentary election this year.

Mr. Abdul Ghaffar hopes to use his weeklong visit here to promote Bahrain’s experiment in democracy and to urge American journalists to take a closer look at the region instead of reporting from what he sees as a U.S.-centered view of the Middle East.

“We are living in a very, very difficult time, and we need the American press to understand what is going on. Many reporters are writing in the context of Washington,” he said.

Ambassador recalled

The U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan repeatedly has denied that Ambassador Reno L. Harnish III was recalled because of a scandal involving the death of his female translator and former embassy employees suspected of involvement in an international sex ring.

News reports, nevertheless, implying such a link appeared yesterday on the widely read liberal Web site, www.huffingtonpost.com, which posted a report from United Press International, quoting newspapers in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, and in Moscow.

Embassy spokesman Jonathan Henick told reporters that the embassy cooperated in the investigation with both local and FBI authorities and that Mr. Harnish, a career Foreign Service officer, was promoted. Azerbaijani employees of the embassy suspected of selling visas to smuggle women into the United States for sex left the embassy a year ago. Mr. Harnish’s interpreter, Zarifa Jabiyeva, was found stabbed to death in her apartment last month.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison@washingtontimes.com.

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