MANAMA (Reuters) - A senior American official returned to Bahrain on Thursday after the kingdom expelled him for meeting with an opposition leader, a rare public row between the United States and its strategic Gulf ally.
Visiting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour Tom Malinowski was declared persona non grata in July, and Bahrain's foreign ministry said he had "intervened flagrantly" in the country's internal affairs. [ID:nL2N0PJ01N]
"As everyone knows, my last visit did not end in a way that served anyone well," Malinowski told a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Manama.
Malinowski thanked Bahrain for taking part in U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State militants and praised progress he said the government had made in internal reconciliation efforts.
His return comes just after Nov 22 parliamentary polls, the first since mostly Shi'ite protestors took to the streets demanding more democracy.
"We think that the recent elections provide a real opportunity to move forward," Malinowski said. "We hope that both the government and opposition will seize it. We hope that this will be a time when everyone focuses on lowering tensions."
Bahrain is a U.S. ally in a volatile region and has long provided a base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. But the Sunni Muslim monarchy has faced criticism over its handling of years of anti-government unrest inspired by the 2011 Arab Spring.
Security forces crushed pro-democracy protests in February 2011. Low-level protests and occasional attacks against the security forces continue.
Bahraini Shi'ites, who make up the majority of the population, complain of political and economic marginalization, an accusation the government denies.
Under criticism from human rights groups, the government invited an independent inquiry to examine its handling of the trouble in 2011. That report said the authorities had used widespread and excessive force, including torture to extract confessions.
The Bahraini government says it has taken steps to address the problems by dismissing those responsible and introducing cameras at police stations.
Reporting By Farishta Saeed; Writing by Noah Browning; Editing by Larry King