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Thu 17 Nov 2011 03:11 PM

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US arms deal for Bahrain hangs in the balance

Superpower’s support hinges on findings of human rights probe

US arms deal for Bahrain hangs in the balance
US President Barack Obama has agreed to suspend a planned $53m arms sale to Bahrain

The
future of US military support for Bahrain, starting with a $53m arms deal now
on the line, hinges on the findings of a human rights investigation into the
Gulf kingdom's handling of popular protests earlier this year.

Originally
due last month, the report was pushed back to November 23 after Bahrain's
longtime superpower ally said it would reassess weapons sales once it had seen
the result of the inquiry, a move analysts say has given it more political
clout.

Not only
could the report help decide whether Bahrain gets arms that human rights
activists fear could be used to crush further dissent, it could also dictate
whether Bahrain heads for more communal violence or toward political
reconciliation.

"There
will be almost certainly some behind-the-scenes wrangling before the final
report is released because there is more at stake than was originally
assumed," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha
Center in Qatar.

"The
US Congress is paying more attention and the arms deal is being called into
question. So there is quite a bit at stake for the Bahraini government and the
report is going to get a lot of attention, for better or worse."

Bahrain's
Sunni Muslim rulers quashed a pro-democracy street movement in March with the
help of martial law and troops called in from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab
Emirates. They accused the protesters, who were largely from the island state's
majority Shi'ite Muslim population, of sectarian motives.

Bahrain
says it needs the military hardware, including armored Humvee vehicles and
missiles, to defend itself from non-Arab Shi'ite giant Iran, which it accuses
of fomenting the revolt to turn Bahrain into an Islamic republic. Iran denies
it.

A White
House spokesman said the weapons would be strictly for Bahrain's external
defense. Rulers across the Middle East this year have justified crackdowns on
protesting civilians by blaming the unrest on foreign conspirators.

The arms
sale became unusually controversial in Congress because, critics say, it
highlighted a double standard in US policy toward popular Arab uprisings.

Whereas
the Obama administration called on beleaguered autocratic leaders in Egypt, Tunisia,
Libya, Syria and Yemen to step down, it has done little but chide Bahrain,
which has hosted US naval headquarters in the Gulf for more than 60 years and
is at the front line of efforts to contain Iran.

Bahrain's
rulers invited the fact-finding mission by human rights lawyers in response to
international criticism of its crackdown on the demonstrations, during which at
least 30 people were killed, hundreds wounded and more than 1,000 detained.

Police
and protesters still clash almost daily in Shi'ite villages ringing the capital
Manama.

The
commission, which is paid for by the Bahraini government, said the delay in
publishing results arose from the sheer volume of testimony given and because
some ministries and government agencies had yet to respond to its inquiries.

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While
analysts agree it was probably overwhelmed, some say the Bahraini authorities
may have sought to hold up the report by not meeting the panel's requests on
time.

"Direct
pressure is going to be limited because I think they can't really threaten the
commission," said Jane Kinninmont, analyst at the UK-based think-tank
Chatham House.

"They
may be able to influence them and to try to encourage them to think that
certain things may be more or less in the country's interest. And of course
there is the question of how much access they've allowed the commission,"
she said.

The
panel has been plagued with controversy from the start.

Its
head, Cherif Bassiouni, said in August he did not believe torture had been a systematic
policy, a gaffe that threatened to discredit the commission among many
Shi'ites, who stormed its offices in anger.

After
that, Bassiouni said he would not speak to the media, but he gave an interview
to an Egyptian newspaper this month in which he backtracked, saying torture had
been systematic, if limited, citing 300 documented cases.

Bahraini
authorities have conceded there were isolated cases of human rights abuses, but
denies there was ever a policy to use excessive force against protesters and
detainees.

"We
hope that the report will be an opportunity for real reform and reconciliation
between the people and the ruling family," said Mattar Mattar, a former
member of Bahrain's largest Shi'ite opposition bloc, al-Wefaq. "Currently
the regime is on the wrong track when they think that they can solve problems
by denial, ignorance and procrastination."

Until
the report is out, Bahrain is holding its breath.

"If
the commission report shows that the government seeks to prevent demonstrations
at all costs, then the [arms] sale is likely to be derailed," said Kenneth
Katzman, a Middle East expert at the nonpartisan US Congressional Research
Service.

"If
the commission's report shows that Bahrain's leadership has tried to address
international criticism and concerns about how it has suppressed the
demonstrations, then I think the sale is likely to proceed eventually," he
said.

Even if
the transaction goes ahead, the tying of the deal to the human rights report
gives the US leverage that could be used to push for reforms in Bahrain after
the investigation is wound up, analysts say.

"I
think the US role has been to strengthen the reformers by using a kind of
pressure that the guys in the security establishment have to be affected by
because it directly affects their supplies of arms," Kinninmont said.

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Bahrain
has said it will hold accountable those the commission implicates in any
maltreatment.

At best,
analysts say, the report could be a springboard for reform, unifying wildly
divergent accounts of events to provide the basis for a way out of a political
quagmire that threatens Bahrain's reputation as a business-friendly banking
hub.

At worst,
the opposition fears, once the commission has left and Bahrain is sure of
getting its US weaponry, there could be a renewed crackdown on public dissent.

"There
is so much at stake and people are pretty dug in on both sides," said a
senior State Department official who declined to be identified. "But I
think the report offers probably a unique opportunity for a re-examination of
all of those things and offers the potential to break out of what has really
been an impasse for the past six months."

Some in
the opposition doubt the report will address grievances underlying the
discontent that sent thousands onto the street earlier this year, or prevent it
from erupting anew.

"There
will be many temptations offered with this settlement, from releasing prisoners,
returning those expelled [from Bahrain] for their actions, withdrawing the
security from the street," the 14th February Youth opposition group said
in a post on the Bahrain Online forum.

"But
there will be no strategic solution to the issue to prevent the recurrence of
these problems."

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Paul 8 years ago

It beggars belief that the USA can contemplate arming an oppressive regime
The abuse and incarceration of locals by the incumbent government is outrageous and I call for sanctions on Bahrain similar to Iran

Forget sending more weapons

Send hope

Paul