U.S. plans huge arms sale to Gulf countries

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is preparing to ask Congress to approve an arms sale package for Saudi Arabia and its neighbors that is expected to total $20 billion over the next decade, at a time when some U.S. officials contend that the Saudis are playing a counterproductive role in Iraq.

The proposed package of advanced weaponry for Saudi Arabia, which includes satellite-guided bombs, upgrades for its fighter planes and new naval vessels, has made Israel and some of its supporters in Congress nervous.

Senior officials who described the package yesterday said the administration has resolved those concerns, in part by promising Israel $30.4 billion in military aid over the next decade, significantly more than Israel has received in the past 10 years.

But administration officials remain concerned that the size of the package and the advanced weaponry it contains, along with broader concerns about Saudi Arabia's role in Iraq, could prompt critics in Congress to oppose the package when Congress is formally notified about the deal in the fall.

In talks about the package, the administration has not sought specific assurances from Saudi Arabia that it would be more supportive of the U.S. effort in Iraq as a condition of receiving the arms package, the officials said.

The officials said the plan to bolster the militaries of Persian Gulf countries is part of a U.S. strategy to contain the growing power of Iran in the region and to demonstrate that no matter what happens in Iraq, Washington remains committed to its longtime Arab allies in the region.

The officials said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who are scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia next week, will press the Saudis to do more to help Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, officials said.

"The role of the Sunni Arab neighbors is to send a positive, affirmative message to moderates in Iraq in government that the neighbors are with you," a senior State Department official said in a conference call yesterday.

More specifically, the official said, the United States wants the Gulf states to make it clear to Sunni Arabs engaged in violence in Iraq that such actions are "killing your future."

In addition to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are likely to receive equipment and weapons from the arms sales under consideration, officials said.

Rice is expected to announce Monday that the administration will open formal discussions with each of those countries about the proposed arms packages, in hopes of reaching agreements by fall.

Along with the announcement of formal talks with Persian Gulf allies on the arms package, Rice is planning to outline the new 10-year agreement to provide military aid to Israel and a similar agreement with Egypt.

The $30.4 billion being promised to Israel is $9.1 billion more than Israel has received over the past decade, an increase of nearly 43 percent.

A senior administration official said the sizable increase results from Israel's need to replace equipment expended in its battle against Hezbollah in Lebanon in August last year and to maintain its advantage in advanced weaponry as other countries in the region modernize their forces.

In defending the proposed sale to the Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, the officials noted that the Saudis and several of the other countries are in talks with suppliers other than the United States.

If the packages offered by the United States are blocked or come with too many conditions, the officials said, the Persian Gulf countries could turn elsewhere for similar equipment, reducing U.S. influence in the region.

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