No trade-off in plan to sell billions in weaponry
SHANNON, Ireland – The Bush administration said Monday there is no trade-off in its plans to sell billions in sophisticated weaponry to oil-rich Persian Gulf states whose cooperation Washington is courting in Iraq.”There isn’t an issue of quid pro quo,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said of the proposed sales to Saudi Arabia and other nations that have until recently committed little other than rhetoric to the U.S.-backed democratic experiment in Iraq.The sales, along with an aid package for Israel and Egypt announced Monday, are the fruit of years of partnership and a recognition of the region’s strategic importance, Rice said. Although she did not mention oil, that is the region’s chief export and the origin of the historic U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia.”We have the same goals in this region concerning security and stability,” and many of the same concerns about the progress of political unification in Iraq, Rice told reporters as she left for a lobbying tour of the region with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.The administration announced the proposed U.S. arms package, estimated at more than $20 billion, the morning that Bush’s two top national security aides left for meetings with Saudi King Abdullah and other leaders.The administration framed the weapons sales, which must be approved by Congress, as a way to strengthen relatively moderate regimes against extremist regimes and ideologies. An increasingly ambitious Iran is the chief opponent.”There isn’t a doubt, I think, that Iran constitutes the single most important, single-country challenge to … U.S. interests in the Middle East and to the kind of Middle East that we want to see,” Rice said.The meeting Tuesday, at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, is the first time Gates and Rice have joined for a diplomatic visit, suggesting an almost last-ditch effort to get Iraq’s Arab neighbors to fulfill their promises to help stabilize the war-ravaged country.Gates and Rice have little more than a month to cobble together the diplomatic and military progress needed to show Congress that Bush’s latest strategy in Iraq is working and deserves more time.Military commanders in Iraq have urged caution in dialing back the buildup of nearly 30,000 U.S. forces in the last six months – bringing the total U.S. commitment in Iraq to about 157,000.Gates visited Egypt earlier this year to press a similar message of greater support for the Iraqi government. He told reporters the key goals of this trip included reaffirming that the United States will continue to have a strong military presence in the region.U.S. officials want “to reassure all of the countries that the policies that the president pursues in Iraq have had and will continue to have regional stability and security as a very high priority,” Gates told reporters traveling with him.House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, D-Calif., said the weapons should be defensive. He added that if the United States refused to sell the arms, then other states would step in to do so.In 1986, congressional disapproval helped persuade the Reagan administration to cut back an arms package to Saudi Arabia.The new sales to Arab countries will be balanced with a more than 25 percent increase in military aid to Israel over the next 10 years, enabling the Jewish state to hold its military edge over neighbors with which it has no peace deal.The weapons package will exceed $20 billion – possibly for just the Saudi portion and additional money for other countries in the region – and has not yet been fully developed, according to a senior defense official traveling with Gates. The official said it will include weapons Saudi Arabia will need over the next decade in four categories:-Missile defense and early warning systems.-Ships and other maritime needs to help the Saudis build the capability of their eastern fleet.-Weapons and equipment to deal with unconventional threats, including terrorism, and to help protect their infrastructure.-Counter-proliferation weaponry.Israel will receive a total of $30 billion in U.S. military assistance while Egypt, which along with Jordan has made peace with Israel, will get $13 billion as part of the broader package.Israel on Sunday reversed long-standing opposition to boosting Arab military might and said it understood the rationale behind the plans – chiefly the threat posed by Iran.Specific figures for Saudi Arabia and Gulf nations Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are not final and will be settled in the coming weeks, said Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, Washington’s third-ranking diplomat, who will travel to the region in mid-August for follow-up talks.The aid packages and weapons deals provide a backbone to Rice’s twin aims on this trip.The first goal, during two stops in Egypt and Saudi Arabia with Gates, is to rally Arab neighbors nervous about Iran to do more to support the new regime in Iraq. Iraq was the traditional regional counterweight to Iran before Saddam Hussein’s ouster, and Iran has used the vacuum to expand its influence.Secondly, the aid package for Israel may smooth Rice’s first visit with Israeli and Palestinian leaders since the Palestinian government cleaved into rival camps in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank in June.The split leaves the Iranian-backed Islamic militants Hamas in charge in Gaza but largely cut off from the rest of the world. The Bush administration sees the split as an opportunity to finally invest in the moderate Palestinian leaders on whom it assumes any eventual peace with Israel will be built.Iraq and its Shiite-led government have been a tough sell to Arab powerbrokers with Sunni Arab majorities. Despite the Bush administration’s argument that a collapsed Iraq would have damaging ripples throughout the region, many Arab regimes have not wanted to risk credibility at home by endorsing a weak government they do not trust.Saudi Arabia has recently increased efforts to stop would-be terrorists or insurgents from crossing its borders to Iraq, but Saudi fighters still gain entry through Syria. The Bush administration is leaning on the influential kingdom to try to lower sectarian tension and increase the political participation of Iraq’s Sunni minority.—Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor, traveling with Gates, contributed to this report.