Long-term U.S. strategy hinges on strengthening gulf states' armed forces


WASHINGTON -- Planning for the Persian Gulf's long-term security, the Bush administration wants to strengthen Saudi Arabia and other states with enough American weaponry either to deter an attack or to stall one long enough for U.S. and allied forces to arrive, officials said yesterday.

While the United States has no plans to keep ground troops in the region beyond the current crisis with Iraq, it wants gulf states to have improved capability to receive and operate effectively with U.S. and other allied forces, they said.

Testifying about a planned $7.3 billion U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia, senior officials of the State and Defense departments gave the most complete picture to date of their strategy for a "coalition defense" to secure the oil-rich region once Iraq has been forced out of Kuwait.

"Ultimately, lasting regional stability will require that our friends in the region do more to help themselves, in close cooperation with the United States," said Reginald Bartholomew, undersecretary of state for international security affairs. But he said, "Support by the United States and others" will continue to be essential.

Paul D. Wolfowitz, undersecretary of defense for policy, said that "no outcome [of the gulf crisis] is likely to permanently eliminate Iraq as a regional power, and if it did, that would merely create new threats to regional stability."

This referred to Iran, which was viewed as a key threat to the region before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and still is seen as a potential threat to long-term stability.

The U.S. strategy, Mr. Wolfowitz said, was to strengthen gulf countries' defenses, encourage regional cooperation "and work with the countries in the region to improve our ability to send and their ability to receive reinforcements in the future and to operate effectively together in a combined defensive operation."

The upcoming sale to Saudi Arabia includes 150 Abrams tanks, 200 Bradley fighting vehicles, 207 armored personnel carriers, multiple launch rocket systems, 12 missile-equipped attack helicopters, medical evacuation helicopters, command and control equipment, 384 Patriot air-defense missiles with six missile-fire units, 150 TOW missile launchers with 1,750 TOW 2-A missiles, seven Lockheed Hercules tanker aircraft and 10 C-130 aircraft.

A bigger sale, bringing the total to an expected $21 billion, will come after Congress returns in January. It will include similar items as well as F-15 aircraft, sources said.

The administration also plans the sale of 27 tanks to Bahrain worth $37 million.

Mr. Wolfowitz said that "standardization on U.S. equipment . . . promotes the ability of local armed forces to operate more effectively with U.S. units should reinforcement of the region be needed again in the future."

The biggest area of vulnerability, which could be crucial at the time U.S. forces withdraw, is the Saudis' shortage of tanks, Mr. Wolfowitz said.

As U.S. forces were dispatched to Saudi Arabia after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Mr. Wolfowitz said, "What we didn't have was anything on the ground that could stop Iraqi tanks. We didn't want to say it at the time. We will say it now. We don't want to ever have to be in the position of saying that again."

The officials disclosed that Iraq's capture of Kuwait allowed it to seize a number of weapons previously sold by the United States.

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