MANAMA, Bahrain — With thousands of anti-government protestors still on the streets of Manama, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen arrived in Bahrain on Thursday, aiming to reassure an old American ally and to better understand the intentions of its ruling family.

The top U.S. military officer is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Bahrain since protesters there joined the wave of uprisings across the region, marching against anti-democratic governments, royal families and despotic regimes.

“This trip has been long planned,” Mullen said. “I honestly never gave a second thought as to whether I was coming or not, despite what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, [and elsewhere.]”

Mullen has visited six countries in the Middle East this week, but this is the first stop at a location with significant anti-government protests. He’ll visit with U.S. troops at Naval Support Activity Bahrain on Friday.

The chairman arrived after a brief stop at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa. Pro-democracy revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa have had exposed and undercut al-Qaida as a “bankrupt” organization, Mullen said, unable to accomplish with “violence and bloodshed” for years what peaceful popular demonstrations have done in weeks.

“Those that have asserted themselves in these countries, those who have been oppressed and who seek opportunity, freedom, better lives, those kinds of things ... from my perspective, they are headed in the exact opposite direction from what al-Qaida seeks,” Mullen said. “Al-Qaida has no positive outcome.”

What happens next will be up to the people and rulers of each country, he said.

In Manama, like elsewhere, military and security forces initially attacked peaceful pro-reform demonstrators. But Bahrain’s crown prince pulled the military off the streets after strong international condemnation, including from President Barack Obama and other administration officials.

“As soon as the forces went away, the violence went away,” Mullen said. “And I think both sides have responded in a way that, at least up to now, ensured that violence would not continue.”

Mullen stressed that Bahrain is a critical U.S. ally dating to the 1940s, now hosting thousands of troops and the Navy’s 5th Fleet, which has responsibility for waters off Iran, the Persian Gulf, and the region. Part of this visit, which is scheduled to include meetings with Crown Prince Salman bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, deputy supreme commander, is to reaffirm U.S. support for a country that has been a good friend for a long time.

“We’re all in the middle of this. The reaffirmation of these partnerships is important, no matter what the outcome,” Mullen said. “Clearly things are changing.”

Indeed, more than halfway through his Middle East trip and roughly two weeks out from Egypt’s revolution, Mullen said he feels a common realization is emerging among foreign leaders he has met: It is too soon to understand what the protests mean for everyone.

“Each one of these countries is different,” he said. “Country after country after country, this is about the people of these countries and how their leadership addresses the challenges they have.”

For now, while Bahrain’s unfinished protests are still drawing thousands, all eyes have turned to Libya, where Moammar Gadhafi loyalists reportedly have killed hundreds of people calling for the end of his regime.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a Tuesday interview with the Weekly Standard suggested French, Italian or British forces could respond in Libya more quickly than the U.S. military. Gates said he has been in two or three meetings each day getting updated on Libya, but Gadhafi’s fate remained an “open question.”

Obama said Wednesday that he was keeping “all options” available to deal with the bloodshed.

Asked what that means for the military, Mullen said, “Right now it’s very difficult to know what’s going to happen. So what we do is provide the president options, and I want them to be as comprehensive and robust and as far-ranging as we can think at this point and time as this situation unfolds. And it’s unfolding almost hourly.”

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