SCOTT SIMON, host:

And just five miles from site of the protest, there's a major American military facility. It's the headquarters of the Navy's Fifth Fleet. More than 6,000 U.S. military personnel and civil contractors work there.

NPR's Tom Bowman has this report on why Bahrain is important to U.S. strategy in the Middle East.

TOM BOWMAN: First, think of Bahrain as something of a rest stop for U.S. Navy ships cruising the waters of the Persian Gulf. Here's how retired Rear Adm. Steve Pietropaoli describes it.

Rear Adm. STEVEN PEITROPAOLI (Retired): It has facilities that can provide support to our ships, including, you know, fuel, water, provisions, resupply.

BOWMAN: Resupplying warships for nearly half a century, ever since Great Britain's fleet left this tiny island nation halfway down the Persian Gulf just off the coast of Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain provided major basing facilities and support for the armada of U.S. Navy ships sent for the first Persian Gulf War in 1990 and the Iraq war in 2003. Again, Adm. Pietropaoli.

Rear Adm. PIETROPAOLI: Bahrain is an outstanding partner. It has been the enduring logistical support for the United States Navy operating in the Persian Gulf for 50 years.

BOWMAN: These days, it's not like there are a large number of Navy ships stationed there, the way there are in Norfolk, Virginia or San Diego. There's usually just a minesweeper or two. The Fifth Fleet operates a carrier and a ship full of Marines that are almost always under way.

Mr. TONY CORDESMAN (Defense Analyst): Bahrain is a facility which is not something measured in the number of ships that are there day by day.

BOWMAN: Defense analyst Tony Cordesman.

Mr. CORDESMAN: But the overall importance and presence of the Fifth Fleet in dealing with a growing Naval threat from Iran, in dealing with piracy in places like Somalia.

BOWMAN: Dealing with all those challenges is made simpler because of Bahrain's location. It's just across the Gulf from Iran, where the U.S. can keep an eye on that country and also ensure that the vital sea lanes of the Persian Gulf remain open and free of trouble.

So what does Bahrain get out of this relationship besides rent? It receives security guarantees from the United States.

That's just the start. The Bahraini Defense Force sends its personnel to the U.S. for training and it buys high-quality weapons as well. American military sales to Bahrain have totaled nearly one-and-a-half billion dollars in the past decade alone.

Those sales include everything from Apache and Cobra attack helicopters to F-16 warplanes, missile launchers and howitzers, and more than 50 Abrams tanks. Now, some of those tanks are patrolling the capital of Manama.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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