U.S. Looks To Sell Military Equipment To Bahrain

The Obama administration wants to sell $53 million worth of military equipment and support to Bahrain. Human rights groups are calling foul, saying the U.S. is rewarding Bahrain at the same time the Persian Gulf state is cracking down on pro-democracy protesters. State Department officials say Washington has a long-standing commitment to Gulf security, but, at the same time, they say there needs to be more progress on reform and accountability in Bahrain.

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The Obama administration is looking to sell the Bahrain more than $50 million worth of military equipment and support. And the timing of that move is facing criticism. Human rights groups and some members of Congress point out that the Bahraini government has been violently cracking down on pro-democracy protesters.

And they say an arms deal would reward Bahrain for bad behavior, as NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The $53 million arms deal for Bahrain would include armored Humvees and anti-tank missiles. Bahrain is a long-time ally of Washington and the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in the tiny island nation. In normal circumstances, an arms deal such as this would not seem out of the ordinary. In fact, the U.S. sold about $200 million worth of military equipment and support in 2010.

But since February, Bahrain has been in the grip of its own Arab Spring and the country's rulers have cracked down hard on protesters and their sympathizers, most of whom are from the majority Shiite community.

Brian Dooley, with the Human Rights First organization, says he's staggered the US would sell arms to Bahrain at this particular time.

BRIAN DOOLEY: It cannot be in the U.S.'s interest to be seen to be arming dictators this way. I mean, it sends all the wrong signals. We saw 20 medical professionals jailed for very long terms for having treated some of the injured protestors and here we are, a few days later, talking about a sizable arms sale from the U.S. to Bahrain. They can't be rewarded for this sort of behavior.

NORTHAM: Dooley says there's strong evidence Bahrain's military, which will be on the receiving end of the U.S. arms deal, has been complicit in human rights violations against the pro-democracy protestors.

But Sager al-Khalifa, a spokesman at Bahrain's embassy in Washington, says the arms shipment isn't for domestic use. It's to defend against external threats.

SAGER AL-KHALIFA: The threats on Bahrain and on American and European interests in the region has been a constant for a very long time. Today, a number of actors, you know, state or non-state, are clearly attempting to exploit relative instability in the region more than ever.

NORTHAM: Khalifa would not point directly at the government of Iran, but says Bahrain feels the threat emanating from that area. So, too, does neighboring Saudi Arabia, another American ally. The Saudis sent troops to Bahrain in March to help put down the protests.

Officials at the State Department speaking only on background say the U.S. has a longstanding commitment to security in the Persian Gulf, but that the administration also recognizes Bahrain's rulers need to take greater steps toward reform.

James Russell with the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Post-Graduate School says, when it comes to Bahrain, the U.S. is on the proverbial horns of a dilemma.

JAMES RUSSELL: This is the classic dilemma of foreign policy, which is that, do you do foreign policy based on your strategic and security interests or based on ethical and moral issues? And this dilemma is slapping the United States in the face as we speak in Bahrain.

NORTHAM: The U.S. has been urging a continuing dialogue between Bahrain's rulers and the demonstrators. Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, says he will introduce a joint resolution in Congress urging a halt to the arms sale, at least until the Bahraini government starts moving on reforms.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM MCGOVERN: It doesn't seem to me to be a radical idea, you know, to have the United States at this particular time say, hey, wait a minute. You know, you need to start respecting the human rights of your people in order to get this arms sale. And, until you do and until we see some reforms take place, you know, we're not going to sell you arms. We're still going to talk to you. We're still going to have relations with you, but we can't conduct business as usual.

NORTHAM: McGovern says, so far, he hasn't seen any sign of reform by Bahrain's government. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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