The Arab Lobby
How the Tiny Kingdom of Bahrain Strong-Armed the President of the United States
By Nick Turse
The men walking down the street looked ordinary enough. Ordinary, at least, for these days of tumult and protest in the Middle East. They wore sneakers and jeans and long-sleeved T-shirts. Some waved the national flag. Many held their hands up high. Some flashed peace signs. A number were chanting, "Peaceful, peaceful."
Up ahead, video footage shows, armored personnel carriers sat in the street waiting. In a deadly raid the previous day, security forces had cleared pro-democracy protesters from the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain's capital, Manama. This evening, the men were headed back to make their voices heard.
The unmistakable crack-crack-crack of gunfire then erupted, and most of the men scattered. Most, but not all. Video footage shows three who never made it off the blacktop. One in an aqua shirt and dark track pants was unmistakably shot in the head. In the time it takes for the camera to pan from his body to the armored vehicles and back, he's visibly lost a large amount of blood.
Human Rights Watch would later report that Redha Bu Hameed died of a gunshot wound to the head.
That incident, which occurred on February 18th, was one of a series of violent actions by Bahrain's security forces that left seven dead and more than 200 injured last month. Reports noted that peaceful protesters had been hit not only by rubber bullets and shotgun pellets, but -- as in the case of Bu Hameed -- by live rounds.
The bullet that took Bu Hameed's life may have been paid for by U.S. taxpayers and given to the Bahrain Defense Force by the U.S. military. The relationship represented by that bullet (or so many others like it) between Bahrain, a tiny country of mostly Shia Muslim citizens ruled by a Sunni king, and the Pentagon has recently proven more powerful than American democratic ideals, more powerful even than the president of the United States.
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.
Bullets and Blackhawks
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."
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