State Department Cables Detail U.S. Links to Bahrain
By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
It's not surprising that the White House worked with Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa to end the crackdown on protesters and to hold talks with the country's mainly Shiite-led opposition, after reading classified State Department cables released last week by WikiLeaks.
The crown prince, a graduate of a U.S. Defense Department high school in Bahrain and American University here in Washington, was described in a December 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Manama as "very Western in his approach and . . . closely identified with the reformist camp within the ruling family."
There is a twist in how he will deal with one of the protesters' demands: to obtain the resignation of Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has held the post for 40 years and is, in effect, the head of government. According to the same 2009 cable, the crown prince's father, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, already had been "gradually shifting power . . . to his son" from the powerful prime minister. With echoes of Shakespeare, the prime minister is the king's uncle and the crown prince's great-uncle.
An earlier cable from the U.S. Embassy hints that a 2008 lawsuit filed by a Bahrain aluminum company against the U.S. corporation Alcoa was approved by the crown prince. It alleges that bribes were paid to Bahrain government officials.
"Many in Bahrain view the lawsuit as another attempt by the Crown Prince to score more points against his uncle the Prime Minister," reads the cable. The lawsuit has been delayed while a criminal investigation proceeds, according to news reports.
The cables released by WikiLeaks also show that U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic relationships with Bahrain run much deeper than the presence there of 5th Fleet headquarters and the Naval Support Activity base, which also serves as home for other American units.
For example, King Hamad graduated from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and "takes a leading role in directing Bahrain's security policy, and carries the title of Supreme Commander," according to the 2009 cable. As crown prince and defense minister from 1971 to 1988, he rebuilt Bahrain's defense forces, "relying heavily on U.S. equipment and training," the cable says.
Bahrain was designated "a major non-NATO ally" in 2002, according to the December 2009 cable.
In March 2008, Bahrain became the first Arab country to command one of the Navy's combined task forces, CTF-152, which coordinates maritime security operations in the Persian Gulf. Bahrain navy elements also joined CTF-151, the anti-piracy group working in the Arabian Sea. In December 2008, a company of Bahrain special security forces joined coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan.
"This activism marks Bahrain as a leader among GCC (Gulf Coordinating Council) states and has encouraged others such as the UAE [United Arab Emirates] to become more involved," the cable says.
Two Patriot antimissile batteries are stationed in Bahrain. In January 2010, according to a cable, King Hamad agreed to an American request for Navy P-3 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft and NATO AWACS planes to be stationed at Isa Air Base in southern Bahrain, the home of Bahrain's own F-16 fighter wing. The Navy and NATO planes had operated out of Muharraq Airfield near the capital.
Using Pentagon funding, the United States has supplied Bahrain with a coastal radar system that gives Bahrain and the Navy "a 360-degree field of vision around the island," according to the cable.
The 2009 cable also talks of putting a mobile ballistic-missile radar in Bahrain as part of the deployment of the new antimissile defense against the Iranian threat. The cable said the Bahrain government had "not yet [been] approached . . . to discuss this possibility." A February 2010 Pentagon budget presentation to Congress includes a reference to sites being added to the system in fiscal 2010, "including the Navy Maritime Operating Center in Bahrain."
Bahrain also has been active in counterterrorism. In July 2008, it tried a Bahraini al-Qaeda financier and aided in the United States' capture of Ruben Pestano Lavilla Jr., the spiritual leader of a Filipino al-Qaeda affiliate who had edited a magazine in Bahrain. Lavilla subsequently was deported and imprisoned in the Philippines.
Bahrain also has been aiding the United States diplomatically, the cables show. It was the first Persian Gulf state to reopen its embassy in Baghdad, and Bahraini airlines now fly regularly to several Iraqi cities.
Though it "maintains correct relations with Iran . . . Bahrain quietly supports international pressure on Iran and consulting with the leadership will ensure that we maintain that support," the 2009 cable says.
The Bahrain National Security Service is losing its "last vestiges of British influence" and is growing into "a world-class intelligence and security service with global reach," according to a December 2009 cable.
For 30 years, until 1998, the security service was run by Col. Ian Henderson, a former British colonial police officer. The current director, Khalifa bin Abdullah al-Khalifa, another member of the ruling Sunni royal family, "unabashedly positions his relationship with the U.S. intelligence community above all others," according to the cable.