How the Tiny Kingdom of Bahrain Strong-Armed the President of the United States
The article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
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 18, 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 US taxpayers and given to the Bahrain Defense Force by the US 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 United States has sent Bahrain dozens of “excess” American tanks, armored personnel carriers and helicopter gunships. The United States 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 United States 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.