Bahrain ordered a top U.S. diplomat to leave the country on Monday after he met with a leading Shiite opposition group.
The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski is not welcome in Bahrain. It said he intervened in the country's domestic affairs by holding meetings with some groups at the expense of others.
Bahrain, a tiny island nation that is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, has been roiled by near-daily protests by Shiites seeking greater political rights and inspired by the Arab Spring wave of revolutions since early 2011. The Bahrain government moved to crush the uprising, which threatened to spill into neighboring Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries with Shiite populations, with the help of regional Gulf Arab forces.
Malinowski was ordered to leave after meeting with Bahrain's Shiite opposition group, Al Wifaq. He arrived in the country Sunday and had been scheduled to stay for three days.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that Malinowski is still in Bahrain.
She said Malinowski was on a visit to reaffirm and strengthen bilateral ties and support King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's reform and reconciliation efforts, particularly in light of events elsewhere in the region.
In a statement later Monday with more details, Psaki said the U.S. is "deeply concerned" by the demand for Malinowski to leave Bahrain immediately. She said his visit had been warmly welcomed and that Bahrain's government "is well aware that U.S. government officials routinely meet with all officially recognized political societies."
"Contrary to our longstanding bilateral relationship and in violation of international diplomatic protocol, the government insisted — without advance warning and after his visit had already commenced — to have a Foreign Ministry representative present at all of Assistant Secretary Malinowski's private meetings with individuals and groups representing a broad spectrum of Bahraini society, including those held at the U.S. embassy," Psaki said. "These actions are not consistent with the strong partnership between the United States and Bahrain."
Repeated rounds of political talks have since failed to significantly close the rifts between the country's Sunni monarchy and majority Shiite factions.
Bahrain's Foreign Ministry said the kingdom's relations with the United States remain strong and important but such meetings were divisive. His actions, added the statement, "run counter to conventional diplomatic norms."
Al Wifaq spokesman Abdul Jalil Khalil told The Associated Press that Malinowski met with the group Sunday evening and was scheduled to hold a joint meeting with them and other opposition groups on Tuesday.
"He had a vision to end the political crisis in Bahrain, especially since the region is witnessing political unrest in Iraq and Syria," Khalil said of the meeting.
He said Al Wifaq is "very surprised" by the government's decision to order Malinowski to leave since US officials usually meet with all sides, including opposition groups, in visits to Bahrain.
Leading human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, who was released from prison late May after serving two years for taking part in illegal protests, told the AP that he had a meeting planned with Malinowski on Monday, but it was canceled.
Sheik Maytham al-Salman, the head of the Religious Freedom Unit at Bahrain Human Rights Observatory, said he also had been scheduled to meet with Malinowski on Tuesday.
Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain condemned the decision to expel Malinowski.
"Malinowski's deportation, which appears to be a result of meeting with various opposition figures and human rights activists, undermines any claims by the Bahraini government that they are serious about reconciliation in the country and creating the space necessary for reform to occur," the group's executive director Abdulla Husain said in a statement.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington D.C. contributed to this report.