Death of Bahrain Ruler a Great Loss, Says Cohen
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
MANAMA, Bahrain, Mar. 8, 1999 Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and Bahraini ruler Emir Sheikh Isa bin Sulman Alkhalifa met March 6 according to schedule. For 30 minutes, the long-time friends discussed peace in the Persian Gulf region and other defense matters and then parted.
Leaving the meeting, Cohen told Crown Prince Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, commander of Bahrain's defense forces, that the emir didn't seem to be himself. The secretary's observation proved prophetic.
Five minutes after Cohen left the meeting at a downtown government office building, the 66-year-old emir collapsed and died of a heart attack. The first indication some of Cohen's traveling party had that something was wrong was when a silent motorcade and an ambulance sped past them as their cars headed to the airport. The second was when Bahraini radio and television stations moments later began airing holy men reading from the Koran, the Muslim holy book, signaling the death of a high official.
A stunned Cohen learned of Sheikh Isa's death from Bahrain's prime minister and delayed his departure to pay his respects to the royal family.
"I could tell something wasn't quite right," the secretary said. "He was a very warm, generous spirit with a light in his eye that was not there today." Cohen issued a statement calling the emir's death a great loss to the people of his country, to the Gulf region and to the United States.
"His care and concern for the people of Bahrain made him an effective and beloved leader," Cohen said. "His tireless work for peace and stability is one of his greatest legacies." He said he will miss the late emir's "wise counsel, warm friendship and steady support for the efforts of the United States to promote peace."
Cohen called Sheikh Isa "a strong and loyal friend to the United States and particularly to the U.S. Navy." Bahrain has hosted a U.S. Navy support unit since 1971 and currently hosts U.S. Central Command's naval component headquarters and Fifth Fleet headquarters. The small island state of 640,000 people is strategically located near Iran and Iraq and the main shipping channels to Kuwait and Saudi.
Sheikh Isa, recently treated in the United States for a heart condition, had ruled the oil-rich emirate since 1961. He is succeeded as emir by the crown prince, 49.
Cohen said he looks forward to working with Sheikh Hamad. "Since founding the Bahrain Defense Force 30 years ago," the secretary said, "he also has worked tirelessly for the security of Bahrain and for peace and stability in the region. I have worked closely with him for many years and consider him a loyal friend."
During his meeting with the late emir, Cohen recalled, "His Highness spoke of the need to work for peace in the region. This was the theme that he stressed in each of our many meetings and during his visit with President Clinton last year." Cohen said they discussed the problems of terrorism and the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iran and Iraq, and he had assured Bahrain's leaders that the U.S. containment policy toward Iraq remains firm.
"The United States, like Bahrain, wants an Iraq that is unified, peaceful and prosperous, an Iraq that respects the United Nations, its neighbors and its own people," he said. In the face of Iraq's defiance of the international community, Cohen said, the United States is supporting the U.N. Security Council's policies to keep Iraq from threatening its neighbors.
The secretary announced a special telephone line is being set up to improve communications between the Pentagon and the Bahraini defense ministry. He also said the United States has approved Bahrain's purchase of 27 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles, to be delivered in 2002. Compared to its predecessor, the AIM-7 Sparrow, the AMRAAM is faster, smaller, lighter and has improved capabilities against low-altitude targets, U.S. defense officials said.
Cohen's stop in Bahrain was the first on a nine-day trip to meet with leaders of Saudi Arabia, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan and Israel. The secretary is scheduled to return to Washington Mar. 12.