President Reagan, faced with an almost certain rebuff from Congress, announced yesterday that he is "temporarily" withdrawing an administration proposal to sell 1,600 Maverick antitank missiles to Saudi Arabia.

The decision followed a highly acrimonious administration debate over the sale. It also comes amid delicate negotiations to obtain additional Saudi assistance for the U.S. plan to provide military escorts for 11 Kuwaiti oil tankers being re-registered under U.S. flags.

Administration sources said that Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who met with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Sultan, in France last Thursday to discuss an expanded Saudi role, was "furious" over the White House decision to back down on the sale.

Administration officials said the Defense and State departments, as well as the National Security Council, had agreed Wednesday that the administration should continue fighting for congressional approval of the sale. This was despite claims by Senate opponents, led by Sens. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) and Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), that they had obtained the necessary 67 votes to kill the sale by overriding any presidential veto of legislation that would block it.

In a statement issued from Venice yesterday, the president said, "I deeply regret the necessity, temporarily, to withdraw the proposal to sell moderate Maverick air-to-ground missiles to Saudi Arabia because of strong congressional opposition."

The action, he said, "sends exactly the wrong signal" to the Saudi kingdom, which "is our staunchest ally in the gulf in resisting Soviet efforts to establish a presence in the Middle East."

Reagan promised to undertake additional consultations with Congress and to resubmit the "necessary notifications at the earliest possible date."

It was not clear whether the withdrawal would affect Saudi willingness to extend additional military assistance to the United States.

The Saudi government was "shocked and dismayed" at the administration decision and was displeased with White House handling of the proposed $360 million Maverick sale, an American source close to the Saudis said.

The source said the Saudis already had agreed to provide additional military aid to the United States in the gulf and that "a lot of discussion" was under way "on particular points" of cooperation. A Pentagon delegation was scheduled to arrive in the Saudi capital of Riyadh this weekend to discuss the details, he said.

Richard L. Armitage, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told the Senate Armed Services Committee the White House decision represented "a real blow" to sensitive negotiations under way with the Saudis.

The White House decision, one official said, "gives the impression we can't deliver. It tells the Saudis we're still subject to cut and run."

At his six-hour meeting with Prince Sultan last week, Weinberger had reportedly gained Saudi approval of a U.S. proposal to expand air protection for U.S.-flagged ships in the Persian Gulf by U.S. Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) surveillance aircraft. The AWACS operate from Saudi bases and Saudi F15 jet fighters cover them during flights over the gulf.

The Saudi government last weekend brought the U.S. proposal before the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council and "got positive results," according to one administration source.

Both Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) charged that the administration had badly mishandled the sale. Dole, echoing complaints from many members of Congress, was upset by the fact that the administration had tried to get the Maverick sale through Congress without first allowing a 20-day period of informal notification.

Dole said he would have opposed the sale "just on the {basis of the} way it was handled." In an apparent reference to congressional criticism of the Saudi failure to intercept the Iraqi jet that attacked the USS Stark May 17, Dole added, "It just wasn't a good time."

Byrd said Reagan's decision to withdraw the sale probably reflected "a reading of the handwriting on the wall" in terms of Hill opposition, and he suggested Congress is "losing its confidence in the administration" and its ability to conduct foreign policy.

Meanwhile, another senior U.S. official, Undersecretary of State Michael H. Armacost, told the House Foreign Relations Committee that the administration had "just commenced some discussion" on the idea of placing threatened Kuwaiti and other neutral ships in the

gulf under United Nations flags.

Armacost said the "practical difficulties" of arranging for such U.N. protection for neutral ships in the gulf "seemed insurmountable" but that the administration has reached no final decision on its feasibility.

"Nobody has ruled out anything," he told reporters later, "but this doesn't seem to be a winner."

Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.