House Members Say They Will Try to Block Arms Sales to Saudis

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Bush administration's plan to sell $20 billion in advanced weaponry 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 yesterday to oppose any deal to Saudi Arabia on grounds that the kingdom has been unhelpful in Iraq and unreliable at fighting terrorism. King Abdullah has called the U.S. military presence in Iraq an "illegitimate occupation," and the Saudis have been either unable or unwilling to stop suicide bombers who have ended up in Iraq, congressional sources say.

Human rights groups warned that new U.S. arms meant to contain Iran's rising influence could backfire, allowing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to rally greater support for his hard-line faction in the run-up to parliamentary elections next spring.

And arms control groups said Bush's strategy would accelerate an already-dangerous trend that could increase tensions rather than generate a greater sense of security.

The administration plans to sell advanced satellite-guided bombs, fighter aircraft upgrades and new naval vessels to six Gulf Cooperation Council countries, including Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman, U.S. officials say.

U.S. officials acknowledged that congressional reaction has been mixed but cautioned that details of a broader arms package -- including $30 billion in military aid to Israel and $13 billion to Egypt over the next 10 years -- 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," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

But Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who was briefed on the deal Tuesday, 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 recognize that Iran is an existential threat, there is also a degree of responsibility that they have to show on broader U.S. foreign policy interests," he said in an interview.

In the context of the arms deals, Lantos said the oil-rich countries should use windfall profits from high oil prices to cover the expenses of Iraqi refugees who have flooded Jordan. Saudi Arabia should not try to re-broker reconciliation between Palestinian moderates and militants, he added, and Qatar should look at the television network al-Jazeera's role in the region.

Reps. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) said yesterday that they will introduce a joint resolution of disapproval to block the deals when Congress is formally notified. They have seven Democratic co-sponsors.

In an interview, Weiner said any arms proposal would find broad bipartisan opposition on the Hill. "The reputation of the Saudis has taken quite a beating since 9/11, and despite the fact that the administration has done everything to portray them as part of the moderate Arab world, members of Congress of both parties are increasingly skeptical."

Under the Arms Export Control Act of 1976, Congress must approve major arms sales. In 1986, the threat of a joint resolution of disapproval played a role in persuading the Reagan administration to cut back an arms package to Saudi Arabia.

Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), a senior member of the House Foreign Relations committee who was also briefed last week, said a pivotal issue will be whether Israel maintains the "qualitative military edge" in the region.

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 G. Kimball of the Arms Control Association. "That approach in the Middle East can be like throwing gasoline on a brush fire."

Human Rights Watch said the arms deals would undermine long-term U.S. 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 Washington director Tom Malinowski.

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