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U.S. Unveils Military-Aid Package For Middle East Allies

Secretary Rice in Egypt today (epa) July 31, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have held talks in Egypt and extended offers of military aid to Arab countries and Israel.

"The United States is determined to assure our allies that we are going to be reliable in helping them to meet their security needs," Rice told a conference in Sharm el-Sheikh today. "We have a lot of interests in common in this region, in the fight against terrorism and extremism, in protecting the gains of peace processes of the past, and in extending those gains to peace processes of the future."

Rice said on July 30 that the multibillion-dollar arms and aid packages for allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt would help counter "negative" influences from Al-Qaeda, Hizballah, Syria, and Iran. She rejected Iranian criticism it would spread fear in the region.

Rice described the arms aid as an effort to help bolster the forces of moderation in the region.

The regional trip will be a chance for the two top officials and Arab leaders to discuss the planned agreements, as outlined by State Department spokesman Tom Casey.

"We view these actions today [July 30] as very much in keeping with our longstanding commitments to our friends and partners in the region, and very much an opportunity to demonstrate that the United States intends to work with those countries that are forces for moderation that have that longstanding security and military relationships with us, to help them be able to deal with the potential threats that are out there, including the threats posed by Iran and Syria and their alliance and their continuing support for terrorist organizations," Casey said.

At today's meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Rice and Gates held talks with Arab foreign ministers from Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

A statement issued at the end of the meeting repeated a general pledge to promote stability in Iraq and agreeing to coordinate their efforts "to promote regional peace and security."

However, the statement contained no specific commitments.

Arms For Israel, Egpyt, Saudi Arabia

The military package announced on July 30 includes $30 billion in assistance to Israel over 10 years -- an increase of about 25 percent on previous spending -- to maintain what the State Department called Israel's "military edge."

There will $13 billion over a similar period for Egypt. It also includes arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states. Rice did not put a figure on those, but reports said they could be worth up to $20 billion, including missile-defense systems and ships.

Rice said the aid was not meant as an inducement to get countries to help more over Iraq. But she stressed that the United States and its allies share the same goal of a stable Iraq.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the deals have been criticized by Iran, which accused Washington of creating fear in the region in order to boost its arms sales. That's a charge Rice rejected, saying if there was any destabilization it could be "laid at the feet of an Iranian regime."

But the deals have other skeptics. Some fear the agreements could backfire and spark an arms race.

Criticism Of Riyadh

In the United States, the planned Saudi arms sales are particularly controversial because of worries that Saudi Arabia is financing opponents of Iraq's Shi'a-led government and is not doing all it can to stem the flow of Sunni extremists into Iraq.

The announcement of the deals came just as Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, in a rare public criticism said Saudi Arabia was not doing all it could to help in Iraq.

Wade Boese, research director of the U.S.-based Arms Control Association, questions whether such arms sales can further Washington's aims.

"The United States has been a leading supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia since 1991, yet that regime did not crack down on the fundamentalism that was within the country that was directed at the United States," Boese said. "It gave it a wink and a nod because it was not directed at the regime itself. So one has to question whether our arms sales to other countries actually buy the influence and the allies and the policies that we are seeking."

The deals still face a major hurdle -- they need the approval of the U.S. Congress.

Already, some members of Congress have expressed reservations, saying they want reassurances that any package will only include defensive weapons systems.

But one traditional opponent of such deals -- namely Israel -- has given its backing, as British journalist Adel Darwish, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, notes.

"This comes at the same time with increasing aid to Israel," Darwish said. "It is within the American interest in general to boost their allies' defenses there against a threat from iran. Traditionally you have Israelis who object to any sort of Arab country getting advanced weaponry from America, but this time they've been pushing for it."

Later today, Gates and Rice travel to Saudi Arabia before making separate trips in the region.

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