US supports `national dialogue` in Bahrain: Obama

US leader welcomes Bahrain King`s reaffirmation of his commitment to reform.

Updated: Feb 28, 2011, 08:45 AM IST

Washington: President Barack Obama extended US support on Sunday for a "national dialogue" in Bahrain, and said it should be "inclusive, non-sectarian and responsive" to the people of the Gulf kingdom.

Obama`s statement came a day after King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa reshuffled his cabinet and allowed the return to the country of an exiled opposition leader after 13 days of protests.

Obama welcomed the changes and the King`s reaffirmation of his commitment to reform.

"The United States supports the national dialogue initiative led by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, and encourages a process that is meaningful, inclusive, non-sectarian, and responsive to the people of Bahrain," he said.

Bahrain, a tiny, oil-rich kingdom which has Sunni rulers governing over a restive Shi’ite majority, houses the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet.

Washington has sought to walk a fine line between supporting its strategic ally and backing the democratic aspirations of Bahrainis marching for change, following similar uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

"The dialogue," Obama continued, "offers an opportunity for meaningful reform and for all Bahrainis to forge a more just future together.”

"As a longstanding partner of Bahrain, the United States continues to believe that Bahrain`s stability will be enhanced by respecting the universal rights of the people of Bahrain and reforms that meet the aspirations of all Bahrainis," Obama said.

On Sunday, thousands of Bahrainis marched in Manama calling for the fall of the dynasty, as 18 opposition MPs submitted their letter of resignation to protest the deaths of anti-regime demonstrators, seven of whom have been killed by security forces since the protests began.

The throng of protesters set out from Pearl Square, which has become the epicenter of anti-government protests that began on February 14, marching onto a major highway.

Earlier, the White House dispatched Admiral Mike Mullen, its top uniformed military officer, to Bahrain. He visited on Friday and reaffirmed Washington`s commitment to embattled King Hamad.

Mullen, who is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reaffirmed US support for the monarch`s "handling (of) the popular crisis" and "strong commitment" to Bahrain`s Army.

Bureau Report