US to up aid to friendly ME countries

Total for Israel to rise from $2.4b to about $3b a year; more weapons to Saudis.

Working out arms agreements with Gulf states to counter the threat from Iran will be a key agenda item for the trip two top US cabinet members will make to the Middle East this week, according to administration officials. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will visit Egypt and Saudi Arabia together as part of a regional tour that will include a separate stop by Rice in Israel and the West Bank. In Sharm e-Sheikh, they will meet with their counterparts, including foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
  • US ups funding for IDF missile defense The US wants to strengthen these countries' sense of security and underscore American commitment to the region during the trip, which will also focus largely on Iraq, a senior defense department official told reporters Friday. "These are big goals, big challenges, and we're taking a comprehensive look that isn't about next year, or next week for that matter, but it's about the next decade," the official said. Specifically, the official referred to ongoing discussions with the Saudis over a large-scale weapons deal: "We've been working very hard on the Saudi arms package, which we believe is critical to the overarching architecture that we believe we are going to need... to deal with the changing strategic threat from Iran and other forces." Without divulging details of the contemplated deal, the official noted that conversations were underway with Congress about the proposal. It has also been reported that the US is looking at a multibillion package for the Saudis to include air and missile defense systems and aircraft with special early detection radar. Israel has expressed displeasure over the move, though there have been US-Israel talks to smooth over the situation and find ways for Israel to keeps its qualitative military edge. US President George W. Bush will also ask Congress to increase foreign aid to Israel and Egypt, locking in US commitments in the Middle East for the next 10 years. If his request is approved, the total for Israel would rise from $2.4 billion to about $3b. a year, and Egypt would continue to receive $1.3b. a year. A senior state department official, also briefing reporters, stressed the context of bolstering the Gulf state's capabilities in light of the regional threats that exist, particularly from Teheran. "We all have shared concerns about Iran's ambitions and conduct," he said. He also said the trip fit into an overall regional strategy aimed, in part, at "dealing with the challenges posed by Iran's engagement in terror and subversion, its hegemonistic ambitions and strategically its nuclear program, its threat to our Gulf allies." AP contributed to this report.•