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Obama backs Middle East protests, urges leaders to accept change

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An anti-government protester, center, shouts slogans Tuesday as Yemeni police block demonstrators demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in San’a, Yemen.

President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he had told U.S. allies as well as foes in the Middle East that they must “get out ahead of” growing demands for reform or risk the fates of the deposed presidents of Egypt and Tunisia.

As an unprecedented wave of street protests continued to spread, notably in the strategic Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, Obama used a news conference to lay down the first outlines of a broader U.S. response, now that it seems clear that the turmoil will extend well beyond the 18-day revolution that toppled Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

He defended his handling of Mubarak’s downfall, acknowledged that prospects for Arab-Israeli peace talks could be complicated, and had tough words for Iran’s leaders, who have responded harshly to a reborn protest movement.

Obama said his message to leaders across the Middle East was that “the world is changing, that you have a young, vibrant generation … that is looking for greater opportunity, and that if you are governing these countries, you’ve got to get out ahead of change. You can’t be behind the curve.”

The most vigorous protests occurred in Bahrain, headquarters to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet; and Yemen, the base of an al-Qaida affiliate that has planned attacks on the United States.

If Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is overthrown, “the likelihood of some really bad elements coming to power is real,” one senior U.S. official said.

In Bahrain, thousands of protesters occupied a main square in the capital, Manama, setting up tents, spreading blankets and smoking water pipes in a peaceful escalation of a drive for reform energized by the pro-democracy uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, said a witness who was reached by phone.

The protesters are demanding a democratically elected government – the ruling dynasty maintains a lock on the Cabinet – along with the release of political prisoners, greater employment opportunities and other concessions. They’ve refrained from demanding the king’s ouster.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. was concerned about the violence in Bahrain, and he urged the government to follow through on promises to investigate the deaths and take legal action against unjustified use of force. “We call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence,” he said in a statement.

Clashes flared for a fifth day in Yemen’s capital, San’a, between hundreds demanding the ouster of Saleh, who has U.S. backing, and the police and government supporters.

Obama in recent weeks has dropped his earlier caution about promoting democracy in the Arab world and has voiced U.S. support for peaceful protest movements.

“My message, I think, to demonstrators going forward is: Your aspirations for greater opportunity, for the ability to speak your mind, for a free press, those are absolutely aspirations we support,” he said.

The bolder U.S. approach has unnerved many U.S. allies in the Middle East, as well as other nations.

“I believe it is counterproductive to encourage, to impose democracy of some specific pattern,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a visit to London, Reuters reported. “We have had more than one revolution in Russia, and we believe we don’t need to impose revolutions on others.”

The U.S. has offered assistance to Egypt and Tunisia as they attempt transitions to democracy. In a phone call with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq indicated that a request for such aid could be forthcoming, Crowley said.

In Yemen, meanwhile, Saleh has been striving to defuse the protests, seeking to enlist the support of tribal leaders. He also has announced that neither he nor his son will compete in the 2013 presidential elections.

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