The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is sending the wrong signal to the government of Bahrain in proceeding with a partial sale of new arms to Manama, according to human rights activists and some lawmakers here.
Their reaction followed Friday's announcement by the State Department that it had cleared a number of items for transfer out of a 53- million-dollar arms package that the administration originally announced last September but subsequently held up due to opposition from key members of Congress.
In announcing what it called the "renewal of U.S. security cooperation with Bahrain", the State Department stressed that none of the weapons approved for transfer could be used in the kingdom's ongoing efforts to suppress growing unrest on the island, especially among its majority Shi'a community.
Demonstrations have been taking place on an almost nightly basis in Shi'a villages in recent weeks and have increased in violence, with some youths throwing Molotov cocktails at police, and with police firing tear gas and birdshot to disperse the protests, with sometimes fatal results.
"Given the continued deterioration in the human rights situation there, we think it's a bad call to be releasing arms - any sort of arms - to Bahrain at this time," Joe Stork, a veteran Middle East specialist at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told IPS.
"We're very concerned with the signal that this sends both to the Bahraini government and the Bahraini people," said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED).
"And we're very disappointed that this announcement was not accompanied by an announcement of any real progress on reform issues, including the numerous recommendations made by the Bassiouni Commission that have yet to be implemented," he said.
He was referring to the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) that was chaired by the noted Egyptian-American jurist, Cherif Bassiouni and which last November issued a nearly 500-page report on serious human rights abuses committed by government forces during its Saudi-backed crackdown against the pro-democracy movement last winter and spring.
Among its most important recommendations, it called for the immediate release of hundreds of people imprisoned for exercising their right to free speech or peaceful assembly and for the investigation and prosecution of officials at all levels responsible for serious abuses, including torture and unlawful killings.
While officials who briefed journalists here declined to specify what arms will be transferred or their value, they insisted that they could be used only for Bahrain's external defence, presumably against Iran.
According to foreignpolicy.com's well-connected "Cable" blog, they will likely include six harbor patrol boats, communications equipment for Bahrain's U.S.-designed air-defense system, ground- based radars, air-to-air-missile systems, Seahawk helicopters, air- defence systems, parts for F-16 fighter engines and Cobra helicopters, and night-vision equipment.
"The items that we are releasing are not used for crowd control," State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in a statement that noted that Washington remained "mindful of the fact that there a number of serious unresolved human rights issues that the Government of Bahrain needs to address."
She noted, in particular, that TOW missiles and Humvees that were part of the original package would not be transferred.
The announcement appeared to be timed to the visit last week of Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the ostensible purpose of which was to witness his son's graduation from American University but who also met with top administration officials, including Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta whose particular concern is the future of the Navy's Fifth Fleet, which is based in Bahrain.
The U.S.-educated crown prince has long been considered the leader of the reformist faction in the royal family, which, unlike most Bahrainis, is Sunni Muslim.
Washington has tried to bolster his position vis-à-vis the Saudi- backed hardliners, who reportedly are led by the world's longest- serving prime minister, Khalifa ibn Sulman al Khalifa. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who committed himself publicly to implementing the recommendations of the Bassiouni Commission in November, is generally believed to side with the crown prince.
"(The announcement) gave Salman something to take back, but indirectly signaled the old guard that the young prince, not his great uncle, is the preferred interlocutor with Washington," according to Emile Nakhleh, a former top Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst for the Near East and South Asia, who last month called for Washington to begin pulling the Fifth Fleet out of Bahrain to distance itself from the Gulf's autocratic Sunni monarchies.
But whether the gesture will have the desired effect in the internal deliberations of the royal family is not clear at all.
"Of course, to save face, the old guard has touted the release of the arms as a sign that they are still in Washington's graces," noted Nakhleh, while Stork told IPS that he had "no basis for thinking it would make a positive difference."
"There's every reason to think that they (the hardliners) would just keep the crown prince in the drawer and send him to Washington to pick up the goodies," Stork added.
Indeed, on the eve of the crown prince's visit here, security forces arrested Nabeel Rajab, the head of the non-governmental Bahrain Center for Human Rights, on his return from meeting in Lebanon with the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. The detention was based on his "tweets" encouraging individuals to take part in peaceful demonstrations and allegedly "insulting" the Interior Ministry.
His arrest followed that of Zainab Al Khawaja, the daughter of another veteran human rights activist, Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, who has been on a hunger strike for more than three months to protest his conviction – now on appeal – and life sentence for allegedly trying to violently overthrow the monarchy.
"The Bahraini government continues to imprison political opponents…," noted Rep. Jim McGovern, one of the lawmakers who pressed the administration to suspend its arms sales last fall.
"(P)roviding more arms sends the wrong signal about America's commitment to human rights," he said.
Friday's announcement also came just before Monday's meeting in Riyadh of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) where Saudi King Abdullah was expected to press his call for a regional to transform the Council from a joint security arrangement to a political confederation – an initiative for which thus far only Bahrain has expressed much enthusiasm.
Riyadh, which is connected to Bahrain by a causeway, deployed more than 1,000 of its police and troops to its neighbor as a reserve force during last year's crackdown, and hundreds are believed to remain there.
"It's clear that Saudi Arabia is trying to expand its hegemony over the rest of the GCC, beginning with Bahrain," according to Nakhleh.
"Prime Minister Khalifa and his supporters within the ruling family no longer seem to care about the sovereignty of Bahrain or its historically liberal tradition. Their main concern is their own survival," he told IPS in an email exchange.