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US announces sales of advanced weaponry to Saudis as Bush visits Riyadh

    WASHINGTON — The Democratic-led Congress is unlikely to block U.S. plans to sell $123 million worth of sophisticated precision-guided bomb technology to Saudi Arabia, despite concerns from some members that the systems could be used against Israel.
    The Bush administration on Monday notified Congress of its intent to sell the bomb-delivery systems as part of a multibillion-dollar arms package to bolster the defense of U.S. allies in the Gulf.
    Rep. Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, does not intend to consider a resolution of disapproval, said spokeswoman Lynne Weil. Otherwise, Lantos declined to comment.
    The arms deal creates a dilemma for lawmakers, especially for Democrats eager to challenge President Bush’s handling of foreign policy. At the same time, they see Saudi Arabia’s cooperation as crucial to the war on terror and in deterring aggression from Iran.
    ‘‘We need to be convinced that the sale makes sense militarily and ensure that it in no way harms our security or those of our allies,’’ said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. ‘‘We must also make certain that the administration does not just try to use a few arms sales to substitute for the comprehensive, coherent strategy we need for the region.’’
    Timed to coincide with Bush’s trip to Saudi Arabia, the notification opens a 30-day window during which lawmakers can object to the sale, which envisions the transfer of 900 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, to the Saudis, the State Department said.
    The proposed deal follows notification on five other packages to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, and brings to $11.5 billion the amount of advanced U.S. weaponry, including Patriot missiles, provided to friendly Arab nations under the Gulf Security Dialogue, spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.
    Administration officials say the total amount of sales as part of the dialogue is estimated at $20 billion, but they also have cautioned that the figure is subject to what equipment the receiving countries actually purchase.
    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 principal 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.
    Congress has already been briefed on the entire Gulf Security Dialogue arms package, which includes the sale of the Navy’s Littoral Combat system as well as the JDAMs kits. During these meetings, the administration assured lawmakers that there would be proper restrictions on the JDAMs sale to ensure that the weapon would not pose a threat to Israel.
    ‘‘We’ve spent a lot of time ensuring that we abide by our commitments to a qualitative military edge for Israel,’’ McCormack said. ‘‘We are committed to maintaining that qualitative military edge for Israel.’’
    Members who still oppose it say they are concerned it would give Saudi Arabia a technical edge that could be used to attack Israel.
    Democratic Reps. Anthony Weiner of New York and Robert Wexler of Florida said they will push for a resolution condemning the sale. Their resolution already has some three dozen co-sponsors.
    ‘‘It’s mind-bogglingly bad policy because the Saudis at every turn have been uncooperative’’ regarding U.S. interests in the Middle East, Weiner said in a statement on Monday.
    At least one Republican, who previously registered his concerns with the deal, said he wasn’t ready to support the deal just yet.
    ‘‘The administration must guarantee to Congress’ satisfaction that selling JDAMs to Saudi Arabia will not harm U.S. forces or our democratic ally Israel,’’ said Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. ‘‘At this time, I do not have enough information to support the sale.’’
    Still, senior congressional aides said it was considered unlikely that the required two-thirds majority in Congress could be found to stop the sale.
    Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said the Israeli government would not comment on the arms deal.
    Previously, Israel has indicated it does not oppose the deal and Washington plans to counterbalance the sales to Arab nations with $30 billion in military assistance to the Jewish state — a more than 25 percent increase over the next 10 years.
    Notifications to Congress of specific transactions are made in ‘‘piecemeal’’ fashion, McCormack said. He added that the 30-day deadline for lawmakers to raise opposition to the previous five sales had passed.
    The five earlier agreements included two sales to the United Arab Emirates for a Patriot missile system and support for an airborne early warning system; one to Kuwait for Patriot missile system upgrades and two to Saudi Arabia for ‘‘targeting pods’’ and upgrades to AWACs airborne warning and control aircraft.

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