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Bahrain Feature: The US Support of Bullets and Blackhawks (Turse)

Nick Turse writes for TomDispatch:

Just how American bullets make their way into Bahraini guns, into weapons used by troops suppressing pro-democracy protesters, opens a wider window into the shadowy relationships between the Pentagon and a number of autocratic states in the Arab world.  Look closely and outlines emerge of the ways in which the Pentagon and those oil-rich nations have pressured the White House to help subvert the popular democratic will sweeping across the greater Middle East.

A TomDispatch analysis of Defense Department documents indicates that, since the 1990s, the United States has transferred large quantities of military materiel, ranging from trucks and aircraft to machine-gun parts and millions of rounds of live ammunition, to Bahrain’s security forces.

According to data from the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the branch of the government that coordinates sales and transfers of military equipment to allies, the U.S. has sent Bahrain dozens of “excess” American tanks, armored personnel carriers, and helicopter gunships.  The U.S. has also given the Bahrain Defense Force thousands of .38 caliber pistols and millions of rounds of ammunition, from large-caliber cannon shells to bullets for handguns.  To take one example, the U.S. supplied Bahrain with enough .50 caliber rounds --- used in sniper rifles and machine guns -- to kill every Bahraini in the kingdom four times over. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency did not respond to repeated requests for information and clarification.

In addition to all these gifts of weaponry, ammunition, and fighting vehicles, the Pentagon in coordination with the State Department oversaw Bahrain’s purchase of more than $386 million in defense items and services from 2007 to 2009, the last three years on record.  These deals included the purchase of a wide range of items from vehicles to weapons systems.  Just this past summer, to cite one example, the Pentagon announced a multimillion-dollar contract with Sikorsky Aircraft to customize nine Black Hawk helicopters for Bahrain’s Defense Force. 

On February 14th, reacting to a growing protest movement with violence, Bahrain’s security forces killed one demonstrator and wounded 25 others.  In the days of continued unrest that followed, reports reached the White House that Bahraini troops had fired on pro-democracy protesters from helicopters.  (Bahraini officials responded that witnesses had mistaken a telephoto lens on a camera for a weapon.)  Bahrain’s army also reportedly opened fire on ambulances that came to tend to the wounded and mourners who had dropped to their knees to pray. 

"We call on restraint from the government," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in the wake of Bahrain’s crackdown.  "We urge a return to a process that will result in real, meaningful changes for the people there."  President Obama was even more forceful in remarks addressing state violence in Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen: "The United States condemns the use of violence by governments against peaceful protesters in those countries, and wherever else it may occur."

Word then emerged that, under the provisions of a law known as the Leahy Amendment, the administration was actively reviewing whether military aid to various units or branches of Bahrain’s security forces should be cut off due to human-rights violations.  "There's evidence now that abuses have occurred," a senior congressional aide told the Wall Street Journal in response to video footage of police and military violence in Bahrain.  "The question is specifically which units committed those abuses and whether or not any of our assistance was used by them."

In the weeks since, Washington has markedly softened its tone.  According to a recent report by Julian Barnes and Adam Entous in the Wall Street Journal, this resulted from a lobbying campaign directed at top officials at the Pentagon and the less powerful State Department by emissaries of Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and his allies in the Middle East.  In the end, the Arab lobby ensured that, when it came to Bahrain, the White House wouldn’t support “regime change,” as in Egypt or Tunisia, but a strategy of theoretical future reform some diplomats are now calling “regime alteration.”

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