US to arm Israel and Arab states in $60bn deal
The US has announced military aid packages worth more than $60bn (£30bn) for Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other key Arab allies in the Gulf. The aim is to boost regional defences against the growing power of Iran and to induce the Saudis in particular to cut back support for Sunni insurgent groups inside Iraq.
Last night, top Bush administration officials headed to the Middle East to discuss details of the arrangements. The most controversial element - in the US at least - is the supply of advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia, including satellite-guided bombs, upgrades to fighter aircraft, as well as new navy ships, in a deal that could be worth $20bn.
In an attempt to reassure Israel, and head off opposition in Congress, Washington has promised the Jewish state a massive increase in military aid, to $30bn over the next decade, some 30 per cent more than over the past 10 years.
The money will enable Israel to keep its traditional edge in hi-tech weaponry, even as the US helps its Arab rivals boost their own military forces. Some of it also will go to replace equipment lost by Israel in the 2006 war in Lebanon. Aid to Egypt over the period will be $13bn, another substantial increase.
Prodded by Israel, the US has asked the Saudis to restrict the size and range of the satellite-guided armaments, and to keep them at bases well away from Israeli territory.
Washington also hopes that it will be able to avoid a repeat of earlier bruising battles on Capitol Hill over arms sales to Riyadh, that saw Saudi Arabia eventually turn to other suppliers, notably Britain. Bush administration officials are quietly warning key lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the American arms industry could suffer a similar blow this time around, if the Democrat-controlled Congress seeks to impose too many conditions on the arms sales.
At the same time, Washington is trying to persuade the Saudis in particular, and other Gulf states, to do more to help stabilise Iraq. It wants them to cut financial aid to Sunni groups opposed to the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki, and stem the flow of foreign combatants into Iraq. In a rare public criticism of the Saudis by a senior Bush administration figure, Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington's former envoy in Baghdad and the current ambassador to the United Nations, accused Riyadh of undermining efforts by the US to restore order in Iraq.
"There is no question that ... Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries are not doing all they can to help us in Iraq," Mr Khalilzad told CNN last week.
This week Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State and the Pentagon chief Robert Gates will deliver the same message when they meet their opposite numbers from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in Sharm-el-Sheikh, and when Mr Gates meets Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah afterwards.
The proposed arms sales are also intended to show that whatever happens in Iraq, the US plans to stand squarely behind its traditional Sunni-led allies - the so-called "moderate" Arab States - against Shia Iran.
"Our commitment in the region remains steadfast, we are seeking to enhance and develop it," a senior Pentagon official told The New York Times. Critics say that these latest moves by Washington will only stoke a new arms race in the Middle East. Beyond argument however, the strategy is very delicate, given the low standing of the US across the region, and its lack of credibility in the Arab world. It is also convoluted, if not downright contradictory.
The Bush administration is asking Sunni states to support the Shia-led government in Baghdad - although that government is a natural ally of Iran, whose growing influence, and suspected nuclear weapons ambitions, make it the main security worry for the Sunni states, as well as for Israel.