Bush faces Saudi arms hurdle

By By Patti Waldmeir in Washington

The Bush administration’s plans for a giant package of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and military aid to Israel ran into congressional opposition at the weekend, with some congressmen vowing to introduce legislation to block the proposal.

The deal, due to be announced this morning ahead of a trip to the Middle East by Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, is expected to include $20bn (€14.7bn, £9.9bn) in advanced arms for Saudi Arabia and five other Gulf countries, offset by $30bn in aid to Israel.

It is being presented as part of an effort by the Bush administration to counter the rising influence of Iran. Another part of the package will be military assistance worth some $13bn in the next decade for Egypt.

The Saudi package is expected to upgrade the country’s missile defences and air force and increase its naval capabilities.

Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister, signalled satisfaction with the proposed deal on Sunday. He said he and President George W. Bush had agreed in talks at the White House last month that Israel would receive $30bn in US military aid over the next decade, averaging $3bn a year.

“This is an increase of 25 per cent for the military aid to Israel from the United States,” he said.

“Other than the increase in aid, we received an explicit and detailed commitment to guarantee Israel’s qualitative advantage over other Arab states.

“We understand the United States’ need to assist the moderate Arab states, which are standing in one front with the United States and us in the struggle against Iran.”

But Congress members immediately vowed to oppose the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Anthony Weiner and Jerrold Nadler, Democratic congressmen, said they would introduce legislation to block the deal “the minute Congress is officially notified”.

Saudi Arabia had “not been a true ally in furthering the United States’ interests in the Middle East”, they said in a statement.

Congressman Roy Blunt, Republican House whip, said getting the deal through Congress would be “a challenge”.

“The Saudis have looked the other way for a long time on the issue of terrorism,” he said. Although some progress had been made, the Saudis had “not done all they could do” to prevent funding from reaching terrorist groups.

There is specific concern in Congress about the alleged complicity of the Saudi authorities in the cross-border movement of Sunni extremists into Iraq.

Congress may reject large arms sales under the terms of the Arms Control Export Act of 1976. The president is required to notify Congress of impending arms deals, and the legislature has 30 days to pass a Joint Resolution of Disapproval. Such a resolution was used in 1986 when Congress convinced President Ronald Reagan to cut back an arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

The $20bn Saudi package would be one of the biggest arms deals negotiated by the Bush administration. Human rights groups also criticised the deal.

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.

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