Gulf state to purchase 19 fighter jets
WASHINGTON: The Trump administration has told Congress it plans to approve a multibillion-dollar sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain without the human rights conditions imposed by the State Department under President Barack Obama.
If finalized, the approval would allow the Gulf island to purchase 19 of the jets from Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp., plus improvements to other jets in Bahrain’s fleet. Though Congress has opportunities to block the sale, it is unlikely it will act to do so, given the Republican majority’s strong support for the sale. The decision is the latest signal that the Trump administration is prioritizing support for Sunni-led countries seen as critical to opposing Iran’s influence in the Mideast over human rights issues that Obama had elevated.
Bahrain, home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet and an under-construction British naval base, is an island state off the coast of Saudi Arabia.
Under Obama, the United States withdrew approval before the fighter jet deal was finalized because it said Bahrain hadn’t taken steps it had promised to improve human rights.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker’s office said the committee was told Wednesday by the State Department that it plans to proceed with the sale. The State Department declined to comment. The notice triggers a 40-day “consultation” period in which committee staff can review a draft of the Bahrain approval, ask questions about the sale and raise any concerns. Then the State Department will send a formal notification to Congress, setting off a final, 30-day review period, during which Congress could pass a joint resolution or take other steps to stop the sale.
Lockheed had lobbied strenuously for the sale’s approval, even as rights groups and pro-democracy activists urged the administration not to jettison human rights conditions. Brian Dooley of the Washington-based group Human Rights First said decoupling the sale from such conditions would “encourage further repression” and fuel instability during a tense period for Bahrain.
Meanwhile, a series of attacks, including a January prison break, have targeted the island. Shiite militant groups have claimed some of the assaults. Bahrain has accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard of training and arming some militants, something the Shiite regional power has dismissed as a “futile and baseless lie.” Lockheed declined to comment while Bahrain’s government did not respond to a request for comment.
In prepared remarks before a hearing Wednesday of the US House’s Armed Services Committee, the head of the US military’s Central Command acknowledged the delay in the fighter jet sale to Bahrain “continues to strain our relationship.” “We continue to urge the government of Bahrain to reverse steps it has taken over the past year to reduce the space for peaceful political expression in its population and have encouraged the Bahrainis to implement needed political reforms in the country,” US Gen Joseph Votel said. – AP