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Big U.S. interests riding on tiny Persian Gulf state

What with all the theories about terrorists going after American targets these days, this is a good time for a look at one of those out-of-the-way places where our government has vitally important interests it doesn't like to talk about.

The place is called Bahrain, and most Americans don't even know where it is, much less that it is host to one of the most important military installations we have in the world. And the reason it's worth a closer look is that Bahrain is in the middle of some serious civil unrest that could endanger what our government is trying to do there and the personnel we have sent to do it.

As any real estate agent will tell you, the most important thing about a place is its location. And nothing could be more to the point when it comes to Bahrain. It's a tiny island _ not much bigger than Washington, D.C. _ just off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf.

Because of its location, and the fact that despite its size it's a sovereign independent country, Bahrain is also an ideal place for the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. This is the outfit that keeps an eye on Iraq and Iran and protects all those oil tankers sailing into and out of the Persian Gulf.

With such an important mission and the fact that they are based in a country whose culture is very different from America's, you can understand why officials at the 5th Fleet like to keep their profile low. When I visited 5th Fleet headquarters during the Persian Gulf war, the deal was that officials would talk to me only if I agreed not to identify the country where we met.

Three other things need to be kept in mind about Bahrain. The first is that about 70 percent of its 400,000 or so people are Shiite Muslims and the rest belong to the Sunni sect of Islam. The second is that a Sunni Muslim family, the Khalifas, has been running the place as its own private fiefdom for more than 200 years.

Third and most important to us right now is that the Khalifas' police force has been cracking down hard in recent months on a Shiite-based pro-democracy movement _ so hard that the human rights group Amnesty International has accused it of widespread brutality.

When you add all these factors together, it's easy to see why the situation in Bahrain is tense these days, especially after the terrorist explosion that killed 19 American airmen at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, last month.

Oh yes, there's one more thing to consider here: Bahrain and Dhahran are less than 20 miles apart, separated only by a narrow stretch of the Persian Gulf. When I was working out of Dhahran during the gulf war, I could look out my hotel window each evening and see the lights of Bahrain twinkling in the distance across the water.

Needless to say, officials at 5th Fleet headquarters worry that the same kind of anti-American fanaticism behind the bombing in Dhahran might catch on among the angry Shiites of Bahrain.

So far, we've been lucky. Bahrain's Shiites have kept their anger focused on the Khalifa family and limited their demands to restoration of a consultative parliament that was abolished in 1975. Nobody's talking _ at least not yet _ about throwing Americans out of the country. If Bahrain's Shiites are mad at any foreigners, it's the thousands of Asians brought into the island nation to do the menial jobs they might otherwise get.

The Khalifas, by the way, blame the almost daily unrest in their small country on Iran, the non-Arab but mainly Shiite Muslim nation across the Persian Gulf. And Washington, not surprisingly, accepts this explanation almost without question. If officials in the Clinton administration can speculate about Iranian agents being behind the bombing in Saudi Arabia, an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim nation, conjuring up Iranian involvement in mainly Shiite Bahrain is almost a no-brainer.

But even if, as the evidence suggests, the troubles in Bahrain are locally grown, that's no excuse for complacency. One of these days Bahrain's Shiites are going to look around and conclude that the United States is propping up the Khalifas just as it is backing the family dynasty that rules neighboring Saudi Arabia.

When that happens, our operations and personnel in Bahrain will be extremely vulnerable.

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While we're on the subject of vulnerable American targets, let's hope that despite all appearances to the contrary, terrorism wasn't involved in the explosion that downed the TWA jumbo jet off Long Island this past week.

An accidental disaster that kills more than 200 people is tragic enough, but a plane crash caused by terrorism has more frightening and far-reaching implications. Our government is still trying to get its hands on two Libyan agents accused of bombing a Pan Am jumbo that went down over Lockerbie, Scotland, and killed 270 people eight years ago.

If the TWA crash turns out to be an act of terrorism as well, it could change the way we travel in this country. We may have learned to live with the possibility of occasional aviation accidents, but terror bombings are something else entirely.

For starters, we might have to adopt airport security measures similar to the ones in Israel. Passengers flying out of Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv have to show up at least three hours ahead of time to go through security. Can you imagine what would happen if we tried such a system here?