THE Bush Administration's plan to sell advanced weapons worth $US20 billion ($24 billion) to Saudi Arabia and five other Persian Gulf countries is running into congressional opposition and criticism from human rights and arms control groups.
Members of Congress vowed on Saturday to oppose any sale to Saudi Arabia on grounds that the kingdom had been unhelpful in Iraq and unreliable in fighting terrorism. King Abdullah has called the US military presence in Iraq an "illegitimate occupation" and the Saudis have been unable or unwilling to stop suicide bombers who have ended up in Iraq, congressional sources say.
Human rights groups warned the offer - designed to contain Iran's influence - could backfire, allowing the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to rally greater support for his hardline faction in the run-up to parliamentary elections next year. And arms control groups said the strategy would accelerate a dangerous trend that could increase tensions rather than create a greater sense of security.
The Administration plans to sell satellite-guided bombs, fighter aircraft upgrades and new naval vessels to the six Gulf Co-operation Council countries - Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.
US officials admitted that congressional reactions had been mixed but cautioned that details of a broader arms package - including $US30 billion in military aid to Israel and $US13 billion to Egypt - have yet to be released.
"As we move forward, we will work very closely with Congress, as well as our friends and allies in the region," a State Department spokesman said.
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But Tom Lantos, the Democrat chairman of the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee, said he had several reservations. "This is not a sale at Macy's that you go in and buy a bunch of stuff. There are a complex set of relationships behind it, and while it's very desirable to have the Saudis and others recognise that Iran is an existential threat, there is also a degree of responsibility that they have to show on broader US foreign policy interests," he said.
The Democrat congressmen Anthony Weiner and Robert Wexler said on Saturday that they would move a resolution of disapproval to block the deals when Congress was formally notified.
Under the Arms Export Control Act of 1976, Congress must approve big arms sales.
Human Rights Watch said the deals would undermine US goals in the Middle East. "This will reduce pressure on Egypt and the Arab states to reform their politics. It's another case of trying to purchase stability at the expense of liberty," said its Washington director, Tom Malinowski.
Arms experts called for a serious debate on the quality and quantity of weapons going to the Gulf states. "This administration does not have an arms sales policy, except to sell, sell, sell," said Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association. "That approach in the Middle East can be like throwing gasoline on a brush fire."
His comments followed the sealing of a nuclear co-operation deal between the US and India on Friday that allows trade in nuclear reactors, technology and fuel.
Copyright © 2007. The Sydney Morning Herald.