The United States strongly rebuked its close Gulf ally Bahrain on Monday after the Sunni kingdom risked stirring unrest by stripping a top Shiite cleric of his citizenship.
Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, accuses Sheikh Isa Qassim -- spiritual leader of his country's Shiite community -- of stirring sectarianism on behalf of "foreign interests."
This is widely seen as code for Iran, a traditional foe of both Washington and its Gulf Arab allies, but the US State Department issued a strongly worded statement criticizing the move.
"We are alarmed by the government of Bahrain's decision to revoke the citizenship of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim," US spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
"We remain deeply troubled by the government of Bahrain's practice of withdrawing the nationality of its citizens arbitrarily," he said, citing concern that dissidents could be rendered stateless.
"Our concern is further magnified by reports that Sheikh Qassim was unable to respond to the accusations against him... or challenge the decision through a transparent legal process."
Kirby restated Washington's position that the best path to resolve political differences in Bahrain is through "reform and reconciliation," rather than through such legal action.
The move against Qassim came as the State Department itself came under pressure to release a long-delayed report into the progress or otherwise that Bahrain is making toward such reconciliation.
Kirby said the department is aware that it has been "delinquent" in failing to produce the report, but said staff were working hard on it and are "nearing the end stages" before its publication.