Tuesday, July 31, 2007

SHANNON, Ireland — The Bush administration said yesterday its proposed multibillion-dollar military aid packages to Israel and Egypt, and arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, will not spark an arms race in the Middle East and will maintain the region’s military balance.

Seeking to secure approval from Congress, where some members are opposed to the Saudi sale in particular, the administration also pledged to work on accountability issues, making sure the weapons are used to fight violent extremists.

“I’m certain that we can convince the Congress, first of all, that we know how to maintain our obligation in terms of accountability toward the security packages,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters while en route to Egypt.

“Secondly, that we know how to be aware of, and responsive to, everyone’s concerns that there not be any shift in the military balance between the parties in the region,” she said at the beginning of a four-day tour of the region with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

Miss Rice and other administration officials, who briefed reporters at various government agencies, presented the sales as a continuation of a decadeslong U.S. policy of aiding allies in the Middle East.

The administration said that, over the next decade, it will award Israel $30 billion and Egypt $13 million in military aid. For Israel, the amount represents an increase of more than 25 percent over the past decade. Aid to Egypt would be about the same.

The amount and details of the sales to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates have yet to be negotiated, officials said.

“This effort will help bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran,” Miss Rice said before leaving Washington yesterday.

“Further modernizing the Egyptian and Saudi armed forces and increasing interoperability will bolster our partners’ resolve in confronting the threat of radicalism, and cement their respective roles as regional leaders in the quest for Middle East peace and in ensuring Lebanon’s freedom and independence,” she said.

The secretary also said that “there isn’t an issue of quid pro quo,” but that the U.S.-made weapons are meant to protect U.S. interests in the region.

Those interests, she added, happen to coincide with the recipient countries’ “goals in this region concerning security and stability.”

Miss Rice and Mr. Gates, who will accompany her in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, will meet with the foreign and defense ministers of the six Gulf states today to begin discussions, among other items on their agenda.

At the meeting, in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, Miss Rice and Mr. Gates are expected to urge the Arab countries, which are Sunni-dominated, to do more to help the situation in Iraq.

After some U.S. officials criticized Saudi Arabia for allowing Sunni fighters to cross its border with Iraq, Miss Rice went out of her way yesterday to praise the desert kingdom for being “very active in denying entry” to terrorists and “committed to debt relief.”

She said Iran is “the single most important strategic challenge to U.S. interests in the region” and the proposed packages would help counter that threat.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman responded to the announcement within hours, saying, “America has always considered one policy in this region, and that is creating fear and division in the countries of the region and trying to harm the good relations between these countries.”

Miss Rice also will try to persuade Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, none of which recognizes Israel diplomatically, to participate in a Middle East peace conference organized by President Bush in the fall.

She will visit Jerusalem and the West Bank at the end of her trip to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

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