Hasan Jamali  /  AP
Shiite Bahraini youths burn tires on Wednesday near a shopping mall in Malkiya, Bahrain, as they awaited government forces they anticipated would roll into their Shiite Muslim village southwest of the capital of Manama. They said they tried to get to Manama to join anti-government protesters under attack there but found all ways in to the capital closed.
updated 3/17/2011 11:13:36 AM ET 2011-03-17T15:13:36

President Barack Obama, struggling to find his footing in the upheaval shaking Bahrain, has urged the kings of that island nation and its ally, Saudi Arabia, to show restraint in dealing with protesters.

The calls to the monarchs Wednesday reflected the cautious approach Obama is taking in Bahrain after openly supporting anti-government protesters who forced out autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt — both longtime U.S. allies.

Story: Obama to Bahrain, Saudi leaders: Show restraint

Obama doesn't want to sour the longstanding alliance that allows the U.S. Navy to maintain strategic port facilities in Bahrain for the powerful 5th Fleet, a bulwark of U.S. power in the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. Its presence is key to containing Iranian political and military ambitions in the region.

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Bahrain has a Sunni monarchy, but it has a Shiite majority. A change in its leadership could be a boon for Iran's Shiite theocracy.

Story: Tiny nation, big history: What you need know about Bahrain

Obama also doesn't want to antagonize Saudi Arabia, another important ally and the world's largest oil producer. Saudi Arabia heaped on complications early this week when it dispatched to Bahrain armored vehicles and a thousand soldiers, some of them from other Gulf countries.

WH voices concern over 'alarming' violence
On Wednesday, security forces used tear gas and armored vehicles to subdue the growing movement against the king. At least six people were killed as clashes flared across the kingdom, according to witnesses and officials.

Video: Violent crackdown on Bahrain protesters (on this page)

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama, in his calls to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, expressed deep concern about the violence. He urged the leaders to open a political dialogue with protesters demanding an end to Bahrain's 200-year-old monarchy.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton added her voice to Obama's on Wednesday, saying the situation had become "alarming."

"We have deplored the use of force," Clinton told reporters in Cairo.

Still, while denouncing violence, U.S. officials have not backed the protesters.

Slideshow: 2011 Bahrain uprising (on this page)

Former adviser: U.S. interests, values collide in Bahrain
Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state, said the United States was "caught in the middle. On one hand we are committed publicly to rather robust support of democratic forces, but trapped by our own devil's bargain in maintaining interests that are vital to our policy.

"Bahrain," he said, "is just the latest arena where American interests and values collide."

The Obama administration has been far more circumspect with Bahrain and the Saudis than it was with Egypt's former president, Hosni Mubarak. He was a major partner with Washington for three decades, but when protesters rose up to oust him last month, Obama's administration openly called for Mubarak to leave power, as it did with Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Hasan Jamali  /  AP
A Shiite Bahraini youth holds a piece of wood in the streets of Malkiya, Bahrain, on Wednesday, where he and others hauled out debris for barricades and found sticks to use as clubs in preparation for government-supporting forces they expect will role into their Shiite Muslim village southwest of the capital of Manama.

"They don't like what's happening in Bahrain but they hesitate to be too tough on the Saudis because they know how terrified they are of Iran," said Jonathan Adelman, a professor and Middle East expert at the University of Denver.

Obama stressed the importance of democracy in the Middle East when he gave a high-profile speech in Cairo shortly after taking office in 2009. While acknowledging that "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone," he spoke of the need for greater freedom and governments that are transparent and honest.

"These are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere," he said.

Video: Critics take aim at president’s indecisiveness (on this page)

The White House has pushed those ideas in Libya, where Moammar Gadhafi's military now appears to be crushing a violent uprising against his long, erratic rule of the oil-rich North African nation.

U.S. officials have called for Gadhafi's departure, seized Libyan resources and imposed new sanctions. Still, Obama apparently has rejected military action like a no-fly zone.

Some analysts have urged Obama to continue being cautious.

"We don't have to try to do decisive things in a matter of days or weeks," Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haas told MSNBC on Wednesday. He said the changes sweeping parts of the Middle East could take years or decades to play out.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Critics take aim at president’s indecisiveness

  1. Closed captioning of: Critics take aim at president’s indecisiveness

    >>> well, from washington's budget kriss to the disaster in japan and the unrest in the middle east , president obama has had quite the full plate. publicly, though, he has been sticking to his own agenda, focuses on jobs and education and even his ncaa basketball bracket. cnbc former bush white house director secretary and you've been on the inside and you know when these critiques come in. you look at just the events yesterday and the only two times we saw him in public were the ncaa brackets interview, that espn debuted at noon yesterday and a speech to those folks, not a fund-raiser. on a day when so much else was going on. look, he was working until midnight last night. we got a readout of a phone call he did with the prime minister. just perception. we saw the comity that it made the monologue. perception wise, are you looking at that scratching your head?

    >> absolutely. especially with the espn picks. look, i'm a huge college basketball fan, i've been to a dozen final fours. i was impressed with his picks and his knowledge of players, but that wasn't what the american people needed to see yesterday. i think no one would have been surprised if he had canceled the on-air --

    >> here's my brackets. i'll see you next week maybe.

    >> i'm kind of busy right now. a lot of big things going on right now. the thing is, when you're president, it's a constant, you know, it's like surfing. you want to pick your waves. when it's foreign policy , crises, you can't pick your waves. you have to ride the waves that come in. domestic policy a little bit of a chance to pick those waves.

    >> david brooks had an interesting observation this week about the president and his style. here's what he writes in part. "the arab masses have seized control of the international agenda with their marches and bravery. the republicans on capitol hill and in madison, wisconsin, have seized control of the domestic agenda with calls for spending cuts. the obama administration has reacted to both of these movements by striking a prudent, middling course, prudence. but americans do have an expectation that their will be the one out." you are friends with these folks.

    >> good people.

    >> they have been criticized for using him too much in time of crises. here's a week where we're not seeing him enough.

    >> it definitely goes back and forth a lot. we made mistakes. we made a mistake on katrina with the question of whether or question of whether president bush should have felony oun.

    >> and then the thing in san diego . talk about the pressure of that inside the white house . in the bush white house , you had some bad pr moments.

    >> yeah.

    >> like what we just described, because the schedule is the schedule, and you get -- you getland handcuffed to it, don't you?

    >> you can get handcuffed to it. if you think about the amount of assets you commit to moving the president to go to a site and, you know, the investment in that, the secret service agents, the security, the costs, the attendees who will come action and you want to try to not always be in a crisis mode, you try to -- you want to try to keep it, but sometimes you just miss, you know, the sentiment. the comment that jay carney made yesterday in reaction to a question whether they should cancel the south america trip that the president will be leaving on, what he said was, you know, that's -- with respect to what's going on in japan, it's a joop niece crisis, it's not a crisis here in the united states , but when you're president of the united states , all big crises are your crises. when the stock market -- you spoke to becky quick . when the stock market is doing what it's doing, when it has an implication for u.s. energy policy , implication for our, you know, most important ally in the asian world, that's an american crisis also. i'm not saying he should cancel the trip.

    >> makes you wonder why anyone wants the job. tony fratto ,

Photos: March

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  1. Bahraini Shiites women attend the funeral of Bahiya al-Aradi, holding portraits of her, in central Manama on Monday, March 22. Aradi, 51, went missing on March 16 evening, and a car that she drove was found the day after in al-Qadam village, west of Manama, with bloodstains on the driver's seat. She was pronounced dead on March 21 after being shot in the head. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Bahraini opposition protesters carry the body of Abdulrasool al-Hajiri during his burial ceremony in Buri village, north of the capital, Manama, on Monday, March 21. Relatives accused the military of executing al-Hajiri after grabbing him at a checkpoint outside the village. Meanwhile, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa praised Saudi-led forces that he called in to help quell unprecedented unrest. (Mazen Mahdi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, right, meets with officers of the Gulf Cooperation Council's Peninsula Shield force late on March 20 in Manama. The monarch said Bahrain has foiled a "foreign plot" to target Gulf countries, in a possible reference to Iran, after security forces crushed Shiite-led unrest, the state news agency reported. (BNA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. An injured Pakistani man takes refuge at a Pakistan club in Manama on March 19. He said that he was attacked by Shiite Bahrainis in a Shiite neighborhood on March 19. According to Pakistani men, Shiites have been attacking Asian nationals, accusing them of taking away their jobs. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Young women look at welts on the body of a young man walking through the streets of Daih, a Shiite suburb of Manama, on March 19. The youth said he was returning from nearby Sanabis, another Shiite area, where he said he and several others were beaten by riot police. (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Bahraini soldiers with the portrait of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on their armored personnel carrier are seen at a checkpoint near Pearl Square in Manama on March 19. (Sergey Ponomarev / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. The sisters of activist Ahmed Farhan mourn over his body in Sitra on March 18. Farhan, 29, was killed March 15 when police cracked down on opposition protesters in the town. (James Lawler Duggan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. An unidentified man shows the bullet that was allegedly pulled from the head of killed opposition protester Ahmed Farhan before his burial on March 18. (Mazen Mahdi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Shiite mourners wrap the body of Ahmed Farhan before his funeral in Sitra on March 18. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Shiite mourners carry the coffin of Ahmed Farhan during his funeral in Sitra on March 18, as thousands of anti-regime activists defied martial law to renew their pro-democracy protests. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A Shiite woman stands in front of the national flag as she watches the funeral procession of Ahmed Farhan on March 18. (Sergey Ponomarev / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A combination of pictures show the statue in the center of Pearl Square in Manama being torn down on March 18. The authorities demolished the statue, focal point and symbol of weeks of pro-democracy protests in the Gulf island kingdom. Drills and diggers cut away at the six bases of the statue for hours, until it collapsed into a mound of rubble and steel bars. Trucks stood by to take away the debris. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. People walk past a car damaged with shotgun pellets in Sitra on March 17. (James Lawler Duggan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The Bahraini National Guard arrest a man who was later identified as journalist Alex Delmar-Morgan of the Wall Street Journal as he walked towards Pearl Square in Manama on March 16. Several hours later, Morgan was released. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Anti-government protestors gesture towards military vehicles near Pearl Square in Manama on March 16 after police killed at least two protesters and wounded dozens more as they assaulted a peaceful protest camp in the capital's Pearl Square, an opposition party official said. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Black smoke billows from burning tents in Pearl Square in Manama on March 16 after soldiers and riot police used tear gas and armored vehicles to drive out hundreds of anti-government protesters occupying the square. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Black smoke billows in Pearl Square on March 16 after a full-scale assault on the protesters occupying the square was launched at daybreak by soldiers and police. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces move in to Pearl Square to remove anti-government protesters on March 16. The GCC is a union comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Doctors form a human chain at Salmaniya Hospital in Manama fearing an attack by riot police on March 15. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A man from the Shiite Muslim village of Sitra, south of the Bahraini capital Manama is brought to the Salmaniya hospital late on March 15 after he was shot with pellets of buckshot, as the king imposed a state of emergency after bringing in foreign troops to help quell anti-regime protests. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Thousands of anti-government protesters march to the Saudi embassy in Manama on March 15, a day after a Saudi-led military force entered the country to defend its Sunni monarchy from a Shiite-led protest movement. The yellow sign center foreground reads: "The Saudi army came to protect the illegitimate government, not the aggrieved, legitimate nation" and the banner at right says: "The Saudi army's entry to Bahrain is an occupation we will never accept." (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Female anti-government protesters gather outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Manama on Tuesday, March 15. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Saudi Arabian troops cross the causeway leading to Bahrain on March 14. About 1,000 Saudi soldiers entered Bahrain to protect government facilities, a Saudi official source said, a day after mainly Shi'ite protesters overran police and blocked roads. (Reuters TV ) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Protesters confront riot police on a flyover near the Pearl Square in Manama on March 13. Bahraini riot police fired thick clouds of tear gas and pushed back protesters who blocked a main thoroughfare leading to the Bahrain Financial Harbour, a key business district in the Gulf Arab region's banking center. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Protesters set up makeshift roadblocks in Manama on March 13. Bahraini police clashed with demonstrators trying to occupy Manama's banking center, as protests spread from a peaceful sit-in to the heart of the strategic Gulf state's business district. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A protester gestures in front of riot police on an overpass near Pearl roundabout in Manama on March 13. (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Opposition protesters take cover after being fired upon by police during an opposition march on Riffa, south of the capital Manama, on March 11. Police clashed with protesters on the outskirts of Riffa after pro-government supporters were able to pass through police lines and attack the opposition march, leaving hundreds injured according to the health ministry, mainly due to tear-gas inhalation. (Mazen Mahdi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Protesters holding signs that read: "Down With Al-Khalifa" (left and right) stand in front of the U.S. embassy during a demonstration where they accused the U.S. government of supporting dictatorships, in Manama on March 7. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A protester kisses a police officer after being told to clear the way for a female driver in Manama on March 3. The protester was blocking the road during an anti-government rally. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Anti-government protesters gesture in front of the main gate of the Interior Ministry during demonstrations in Manama on March 2. Protests in Bahrain are starting to make forays away from the central square in Manama and into different parts of the city. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Anti-government protesters march toward the Pearl roundabout, March 1, in the capital of Manama. Tens of thousands of Bahrainis, largely Shiites, participated in the march urging unity among Sunnis and Shiites in demanding political reform. (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: TOPSHOTS

Bahraini Shiites women attend t
    Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (31) 2011 Bahrain uprising - March
  2. Image: Bahraini protesters sit and rest in their tent at Pearl Square in Bahraini capital of Manama
    Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters
    Slideshow (63) 2011 Bahrain uprising - February

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