King Hamad Bin Eisa Al Khalifa receives Admiral Mullen in Bahrain Image Credit: BNA

Manama: Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the highest-ranking US official to visit Manama since protesters took to the streets more than 10 days ago, has reaffirmed US support for Bahrain, “a country that has been a good friend for a long time.”

“The reaffirmation of these partnerships is important,” he said.

According to US military media, Mullen stressed that Bahrain is a critical US ally dating to the 1940s, now hosting thousands of troops and the Navy’s 5th Fleet, which has responsibility for waters off Iran, the Gulf, and the region.

Part of Mullen’s visit is to reassure a longtime friend and to listen to the Bahraini perspectives, Stars & Stripes said.

Bahrain has been witnessing demonstrations since February 14 to ask for better political and living conditions and more constitutional changes.

Tensions flared after three people were killed in a raid on protesters at the Pearl Roundabout, the epicenter of the protests, and threatened to force the country into bloody clashes, particularly after the deployment of armoured vehicles last Thursday.

However, Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa launched last Saturday an initiative by pulling out the army off the streets of Manama and calling for “a national dialogue with all parties, without exclusion, to discuss all issues, without exception.”

His move was promptly hailed by all parties and ensured that no-one was killed or harmed in the last week.

Mullen praised the decision to pullout the army and begin a national dialogue to address protesters’ concerns after initial violence.

“He’s taken some significant positive steps, from a leadership standpoint … I have great admiration for steps the crown prince has taken,” he said. “I certainly decry the violence. It’s a very important message that as soon as the forces went away, the violence went away. And I think that both sides responded in a way that ensured violence would not continue,” said Mullen who is visiting US troops at the Naval Support Activity in Manama on Friday.

The military chairman has visited six countries in the Middle East this week. “Each of these countries is different, and each of these countries is figuring out how to address their own challenges,” he said. “That is really up to them. Country after country after country, this is about the people of these countries and how their leadership addresses the challenges they have. We want to help and support where it is appropriate,” he said, with a goal of “doing it peacefully [and] sustaining stability.”

Mullen said he “honestly never gave a second thought” to reconsidering the long-planned visit here, despite last week’s events.

Bahrain is a critical, longtime ally and host to the US 5th Fleet, Mullen said, adding that he looks to that relationship continuing into the future.