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Bush administration times Saudi arms sale notification with president’s Riyadh arrival

    WASHINGTON — The Bush administration will notify Congress on Monday of its intent to sell $20 billion in weapons, including precision-guided bombs, to Saudi Arabia, moving up the announcement to coincide with the president’s arrival in Riyadh, The Associated Press has learned.
    Despite concern about the deal from some lawmakers, the State Department, which last month said it would delay the notification until after Congress comes back into session, will announce the proposed sale on Jan. 14, a day before the House returns to work and more than a week before senators return to Washington, said a senior official.
    The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations on the matter.
    The official said the new timing was ‘‘appropriate’’ and ‘‘symbolic’’ as it would come within hours of Bush’s arrival in Saudi Arabia, the penultimate stop on his current Middle East trip. Air Force One is scheduled to land in Riyadh on Monday after a stop in Dubai.
    The official announcement will kick off a 30-day review period during which lawmakers could move to block the sale.
    Faced with congressional unease and requests from senior lawmakers for more time to review the sale, the administration agreed in December to put back the notification until Congress returns to session this month.
    Although the new House session does not officially begin until Jan. 15 and senators do not return until Jan. 22, Senate Democrats have been briefly opening and closing the body each day during its holiday break, meaning the upper house remains technically at work.
    The sale is a key element in the U.S. strategy to bolster the defenses of its Arab allies in Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing majority Sunni Muslim Gulf nations against threats from Shiite Iran.
    A main aim of Bush’s Mideast visit is to convince the Saudi leadership as well as those in Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates that he remains committed to preventing Iran from destabilizing the region, despite U.S. intelligence findings that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons development in 2003.
    Although administration has staunchly defended the sale as critical to U.S. interests, its desire to sell Saudi Arabia sophisticated weaponry has raised eyebrows from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who say the transfer of Joint Direct Attack Munitions technology would lend it highly accurate targeting abilities that could threaten Israel.
    Those concerns have not been assuaged by the administration’s plan to counterbalance the Saudi sale with $30 billion in military assistance to Israel — a more than 25 percent increase over the next 10 years — and statements from Israeli officials who say they understand the rationale for the sale and will not oppose it.
    In a letter to Bush sent last fall after plans for the sale first became public, 186 House members expressed serious reservations about the plan and at least one, Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., has said he plans to introduce a resolution to block the sale. His resolution has nearly three dozen co-sponsors.

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