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US set to offer arms deal to Saudis

Plan could have foes in Congress

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is preparing to ask Congress to approve an arms sale package for Saudi Arabia and its neighbors that is expected to total $20 billion over the next decade at a time when some US officials contend the Saudis are playing a counterproductive role in Iraq.

The proposed package of advanced weaponry for Saudi Arabia, which includes satellite-guided bombs, upgrades to its fighters, and new naval vessels, has made Israel and some of its supporters in Congress nervous.

Senior officials who described the package yesterday said they believed the administration has now resolved those concerns, in part by promising Israel $30.4 billion in military aid during the next decade, a significant increase over what Israel received in the last 10 years.

But administration officials remain concerned that the size of the package and the advanced weaponry it contains, as well as broader concerns about Saudi Arabia's role in Iraq, could prompt Saudi critics in Congress to oppose the package when the deal is formally announced this fall.

In talks about the package, the administration has not sought specific assurances from Saudi Arabia that it will be more supportive of the US effort in Iraq as a condition of receiving the arms package, the officials said.

The officials said the plan to bolster the militaries of Persian Gulf countries is part of a US strategy to contain the growing power of Iran and to demonstrate that, no matter what happens in Iraq, Washington remains committed to its longtime Arab allies in the region. Officials from the State Department and the Pentagon agreed to outline the terms of the deal after some details emerged from closed briefings this week on Capitol Hill.

The officials said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who are scheduled to make a joint visit to Saudi Arabia next week, still intend to use the trip to press the Saudis to do more to help Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government, officials said.

The United States wants the Gulf states to make clear to Sunni Arabs engaged in violence in Iraq that such actions are "killing your future," a senior State Department official told reporters in a conference call.

Along with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are likely to receive equipment and weaponry from the arms sales under consideration, officials said.

In addition to promising an increase in US military aid to Israel, the Pentagon is seeking to ease Israel's concerns over the proposed weapons sales to Saudi Arabia by asking the Saudis to accept restrictions on the range, size, and location of the satellite-guided bombs, including a commitment not to store the weapons at airbases close to Israeli territory, the officials said.