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Saudis to Shop Around if U.S. Balks on Arms

TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

With opposition to an arms sale of more than $20 billion to Saudi Arabia emerging in Congress, the Saudi government served notice Thursday that it will buy weapons elsewhere if the United States backs away from an earlier decision to make the sale.

“Saudi Arabia is going to increase its long-term defense forces, and the question is not whether the arms will be bought, but where they will be bought,” said Fred Dutton, a longtime Washington representative of the Saudi government. “If the U.S. is not prepared to make the sale, so be it. The Saudis would respect that, but the purchase would go elsewhere.”

Speculation about the strength of the White House commitment to the deal came this week when a top State Department official promised House members opposed to the sale that their concerns would be considered.

In the mid-1980s, after lobbying by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee soured Congress on a proposed $7-billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, the Saudis turned to Britain and made a $20-billion arms purchase.

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Several senators, including Democratic Whip Alan Cranston of California, a staunch supporter of Israel, have proposed that the Administration lease to the Saudis some of the more expensive and sophisticated weaponry that they need to defend against the Iraqi military threat. In building its arsenal, Israel has leased rather than purchased some of its weapons from the United States.

Cranston, in a Senate speech, said that he and several other senators are proposing that the weapons package be in two parts.

The first would consist of weapons to be delivered immediately to strengthen the Saudis’ military defense against Iraq and to help protect U.S. troops now deployed in Saudi Arabia. The second part, consisting of F-15 aircraft, helicopters and modified tanks, would be leased until the current crisis in the Persian Gulf ends, then be turned back to the United States.

“Leasing would not help Saudi Arabia in the long range in defending against the continuing Iraqi military threat,” Dutton declared. “The Saudis don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to purchase the weapons when they are prepared to pay in full. The fact is the Israelis lease because they can’t afford to purchase all the weapons they want.”

The Saudis, who last week were assured by Bush Administration officials that they had signed off on the arms package, obviously were nettled by reports of congressional opposition and suggestions by congressional aides that the Administration may be considering scaling back the size of the package even before it is introduced in Congress.

Their concern was heightened Thursday when, even though a highly placed source said that the sale “will go forward,” the White House publicly declined to speculate on whether the size of the package may be reduced.

“We are in the process of discussing this internally within the government as well as consulting with the Congress,” said White House Deputy Press Secretary Roman Popadiuk. “It’s too premature to start categorizing something as either moving forward or moving back. We have not made an internal government decision in terms of the scale.”

The proposed sale would be in addition to $2.2 billion in fighter jets and other arms sold to the Saudis last month after Iraq’s Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.

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The massive arms package, which would be the largest U.S. military sale in history--almost three times as large as the previous record of $8 billion, which also went to the Saudis--would provide immediate delivery of at least 24 F-15 fighters, as many as 300 M-1 tanks, several hundred Bradley armored fighting vehicles, 48 Apache attack helicopters and hundreds of air-to-air missiles, officials said.

Some concern about the proposed sale was voiced in the House as well as the Senate. And Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger promised House members that the Administration would take into account any concerns voiced in Congress about the sale.

Rep. Matthew McHugh (D-N.Y.) told Eagleburger that he fears that the sale will intensify the Middle East arms race and that the United States will wind up paying for additional military aid to Israel, which now totals $1.8 billion a year.

The Bush Administration, like previous administrations, is committed to maintaining Israel’s “qualitative military edge” over the Arab states.

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Despite concern that the Administration may consider scaling back the arms package, a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy said that Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had reassured the Saudis that the Administration still plans to introduce the original package.

And a senior White House official, who declined to be identified, said in an interview: “The package will go forward. The only question is timing and tactics and dealing with Congress. The Administration consensus still supports the package.”

Plans for the sale were disclosed by Administration officials Sept. 14. At that time officials said they expected the proposal to be sent to Congress by the end of this week.

The Saudis worry that the longer the Administration delays sending the package to Congress, the more opposition will mount and the greater the chance that President Bush may consider reducing the size of the package.

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Anxiety in Israel about the proposed sale also has been a major factor in the Administration’s handling of the issue. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens told Defense Secretary Cheney on Monday that Israel wants more U.S. military aid to compensate for any weapons sold to the Saudis.

Talking with reporters after a meeting with Cheney at the Pentagon, Arens said: “I think a very large-scale sale of advanced equipment to the Saudis without adequate compensation for Israel could upset the military balance in the area and that would be destabilizing.”

Cheney promised Arens that Israel’s “qualitative military edge” over the Arab states in the Middle East will be maintained despite the arms sale, an Administration official said.


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