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The Bush administration tried to paint its multibillion-dollar arms deal to Saudi Arabia as serving the national interest Monday, while members of Congress were lining up to block a deal they labeled dangerous to America and Israel.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the formal launch of discussions over the package for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, as well as 10-year military aid plans with Israel and Egypt, in a statement ahead of her departure for the Middle East on Monday afternoon. Israel is slated to get $30 billion and Egypt $13b.; the latter will also receive additional economic aid.
Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns said the details of the deal would be formally presented to Congress for approval only in September - in part because many of the specifics will be worked out in conversations during the upcoming trip of Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who will accompany Rice in Egypt and Saudi Arabia - and rejected the $20b. price tag that has been reported as premature.
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In a briefing with reporters, Burns said that such security assistance "is very much in our national interest" because it strengthens America's allies in the region and helps them counter the threat of terrorism and an increasingly ambitious Iran.
He added that the arms would be "for defensive purposes - most of it."
House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Tom Lantos, who was briefed on the issue by administration officials Tuesday, announced over the weekend that he had concerns about any offensive capabilities the US was considering supplying. Other members went further, saying they would be sponsoring legislation to block such a weapons deal.
"We must not supply arms to Saudi Arabia while they are financing the teaching of Wahhabi terrorism all over the world," said Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-New York), whose office said he would help draft the legislation necessary to block the deal once Congress had been officially notified.
"Arms supplies to the Saudis may very well be turned against Israel and could easily end up in the hands of terrorists," he warned. "And we should remember that the hi-tech arms we gave to the Shah of Iran ended up in the Ayatollah Khomeini's hands. The same thing could end up happening in Saudi Arabia."
Other members of Congress questioned administration support for the Gulf power at a time of increased US-Saudi tension.
The sectarian violence in Iraq has strained ties between the two countries, with US Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad taking the usual step Sunday of saying that Saudi Arabia, as well as other countries, "are not doing all they can to help us in Iraq. Some of them are not only not helping, but they are doing things that are undermining the effort to make progress."
Asked about demands made of the Saudis in return for the weapons they will receive, Burns said, "There are no formal quid pro quos in this, but it figures that we would want our friends to be supportive of Iraq."
Meanwhile, other critics are raising concerns that the deal could raise the ante on an arms race with Iran and inflame the Islamic Republic at a time the US is seeking to contain it.
Burns, however, dismissed these fears, pointing to Iranian nuclear ambitions and support of terrorism as the cause of fear in the region. "It's the Iranians that have the concern in the first place," he said. Providing arms to US allies will only show "how isolated the Iranians are."â€¢
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