WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration said on Monday it notified Congress of plans to sell Saudi Arabia bomb-guidance kits as part of a multibillion-dollar package of advanced arms to Gulf Arab states that U.S. officials see as helping counter growing Iranian military clout.
Amid concerns the bomb kits could threaten Israel, some U.S. lawmakers immediately said they would try to block the sale of the sophisticated weaponry, charging Saudi Arabia is not a “true ally in the war on terror”. But it was unclear how far their efforts would advance in Congress.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters the administration had initiated the formal 30-day congressional notification process for the proposed sale of 900 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, to Saudi Arabia.
The value of the deal was about $120 million, he said, part of an overall package of arms planned to be sold to Gulf states. The deals announced so far amount to about $11.5 billion, McCormack added.
Last year, U.S. officials told lawmakers the total sales under the Gulf arms package could hit $20 billion.
The bomb-guidance kits proposed to be sold to Saudi Arabia are built by Boeing Co and turn unguided bombs into precision munitions with built-in satellite and motion-sensing navigation systems.
Monday’s announcement came as President George W. Bush visited Saudi Arabia. The president is on a Middle East tour in which he has warned that Iran threatens security around the world by backing militants, and urged his Gulf Arab allies to confront the danger.
But two U.S. lawmakers said they would introduce a “resolution of disapproval” to try to stop the JDAMs sale.
Democratic Representatives Anthony Weiner of New York and Robert Wexler of Florida said Saudi Arabia was not a “true U.S. ally in the war on terror” and did not help U.S. interests in the Middle East.
In a statement, Weiner and Wexler said that last July, U.S. officials said the majority of suicide bombers in Iraq are from Saudi Arabia and about 45 percent of all “foreign fighters” are Saudi. “Despite assurances to the contrary, Saudi Arabia appears to continue to bankroll terrorist organizations that have attacked both the United States and Israel,” they added.
However, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, California Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos, has no plans to take up such a resolution, a spokeswoman said. If the panel does not take up the matter, it “goes nowhere,” she added.
Israel security sources said on Sunday the United States would provide the Jewish state better “smart bombs” than those it plans to sell Saudi Arabia under the regional defense plan. But McCormack declined to comment on this, and said any further arms sales would go through the “regular processes.”
Asked about concerns among some lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the JDAMs were a threat to Israel, McCormack said: “It is an issue that we have talked to the Saudi government about, we have talked to the Israeli government about and we have worked quite closely with the Hill on this.”
“We have spent a lot of time ensuring that we abide by our commitments to a qualitative military edge — QME — for Israel,” he said.
Asked about criticism that Saudi Arabia has not done enough to fight terrorism, McCormack said their efforts had made “quantum leaps” over where they were several years ago.
“They have made great progress in fighting terrorism,” he said. “That is not to say that there is not more to be done and we have to remain vigilant. We talk to them about that.”
The parts of the arms package announced in December included advanced anti-missile systems to the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, with a potential combined value of some $10 billion. There were also two planned sales to Saudi Arabia involving bomb targeting pods and upgrades for AWACS surveillance aircraft, McCormack said.
Editing by Tim Dobbyn and Braden Reddall