WASHINGTON - The United States said Monday it was resuming security aid to Bahrain's military forces, citing "meaningful progress" on human rights four years after the kingdom's deadly crackdown on anti-government protesters.
"The administration has decided to lift the holds on security assistance to the Bahrain Defence Force and National Guard that were implemented following Bahrain's crackdown on demonstrations in 2011," State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
"While we do not think that the human rights situation in Bahrain is adequate... we believe it is important to recognise that the government of Bahrain has made some meaningful progress on human rights reforms and reconciliation."
US officials did not specify what weaponry or security equipment or systems would be transferred to Bahrain, but they did stress that, apart from items that meet a clear counterterrorism need, the United States "will maintain restrictions on security sales to the Bahrain Ministry of Interior," or MOI.
Washington says the ministry "bore the preponderance of responsibility for government abuses in 2011," according to State Department officials.
"We will lift this restriction as we determine that the government has taken additional, significant steps to improve MOI accountability and its treatment of detainees."
Human Rights First condemned the decision, calling it a "major blow" to efforts to pressure Bahrain to implement human rights reform.
"There is no way to dress this up as a good move," said the group's Brian Dooley.
"It's bad for Bahrain, bad for the region and bad for the United States."
He noted that Shia-majority Bahrain's military was almost exclusively Sunni, and expressed concern at increased sectarianism in the region.
At least 89 people have been killed in confrontations with Bahrain security forces since 2011, while hundreds have been arrested and put on trial, rights groups say.
Protesters continue to clash frequently with security forces in Shiite villages outside Manama.
Bahrain has been rocked by unrest since security forces crushed Shiite-led protests in 2011 demanding a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister.
On June 20 Bahrain released a Sunni opposition leader, Ibrahim Sharif, who was jailed more than four years for involvement in the anti-government demonstrations.
Sharif had played a prominent role in the month-long protests and was later among a group of 20 activists tried for plotting to overthrow Bahrain's Sunni rulers.
The release came four days after a Bahrain court jailed prominent Shiite opposition leader Ali Salman for four years for inciting disobedience and hatred in the kingdom.
Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, is seen as a vital partner in the international coalition against the Islamic State extremist group that controls significant portions of Iraq and Syria.
Apart from its anti-IS commitment, "Bahrain's logistical and operational support enables the US to lead a 30-nation military coalition that counters piracy and terrorism, maintains the free flow of commerce and energy resources through the Strait of Hormuz and demonstrates international resolve to Iran," State Department officials said.