US President Barack Obama's pick for ambassador to Bahrain urged the kingdom Wednesday to avoid "repression" and instead respond to unrest "through genuine reform and reconciliation."
"Political reform and respect for human rights are vital to Bahrain's stability and to the protection of US interests in the region," Thomas Krajeski told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a confirmation hearing.
"Bahrain's long-term stability depends on addressing domestic grievances not through repression, but through genuine reform and reconciliation."
His comments came days before parliamentary elections set for September 24 in Bahrain, where a Sunni monarchy has ruled over a majority Shiite population for decades and crushed a month of Shiite-led democracy protests in mid-March.
The opposition has already boycotted the polls and wants democratic reforms in the Gulf kingdom, home to the US Fifth Fleet.
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Krajeski said his "top priority" was to sustain the US-Bahrain partnership "based on mutual interests in regional security "while encouraging and supporting reforms that meet the needs and aspirations of Bahrain's citizens."
Washington "remains deeply concerned" about the crackdown on protests, he reiterated, citing "many credible reports of serious human rights abuses by security forces."
Krajeski had been quizzed on the crackdown by Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who chaired the hearing and also asked the diplomat about US concerns that Iran may be fomenting unrest in Bahrain.
"The events in February and March, in our view, were clearly begun by Bahrainis," he said. "We saw no evidence of Iranian instigation, however we're concerned about Iranian exploitation."
The Iranians "will exploit every situation where they can. We've seen it in other countries, and we're concerned about Bahrain as well," he added, echoing past comments by senior US officials.
Asked by AFP to detail predominantly Shiite Iran's possible role, the diplomat declined, stressing he had not yet been confirmed to the post in Bahrain.
In April, then-US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters with him on a swing through the Middle East that he had "evidence that the Iranians are trying to exploit the situation in Bahrain."