WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates headed for the Middle East on Monday, armed with big military aid plans for allies and seeking their help with Iraq.
Rice said Washington planned to offer Egypt a $13 billion package and Israel a $30 billion deal — increases on previous military funding — over 10 years, as well as unspecified defense aid to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
“This effort will help bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran,” Rice said.
On a rare joint trip, the two Cabinet secretaries will hold meetings with leaders in Egypt and Saudi Arabia before going their separate ways to other destinations in the region.
Administration officials say the visit is meant to send a signal to long-standing U.S. allies in the Middle East that the United States remains committed to the region despite its problems in Iraq and the growing strength of Iran.
The Saudi package is expected to upgrade the country’s missile defenses and air force and increase its naval capabilities, a defense official told Reuters on Saturday. The package for Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries could reach $20 billion over 10 years, the official said.
The proposed packages still have to be approved by Congress and there is expected to be opposition by some lawmakers, particularly over assistance to Saudi Arabia, which critics accuse of not helping U.S. efforts in Iraq.
U.S. officials have urged Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab countries to do more to support the U.S.-backed Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
“We need cooperation and help from all our friends in the area to deal effectively with the situation in Iraq,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said on Monday.
“On Iraq, we would benefit, the Iraqis will benefit, the region will benefit from a more enhanced Saudi cooperation towards stabilizing the situation,” he told reporters.
Many Sunni-led governments harbor strong reservations about Maliki’s Shi’ite-led administration, believing it to be too weak to establish order in Iraq and too close politically to Shi’ite-dominated Iran.
Washington wants clear statements from the leaders of Sunni Arab countries that they recognize Maliki’s government as a legitimate partner and that there can be no justification for insurgent and militant violence in Iraq.
“No Sunni will help themselves by killing Shia, just as no Shia advances long-term Shia security by killing innocent Sunnis,” said a senior State Department official, briefing reporters ahead of the trip.
“The message on all sides has to be very clear about this.”
Rice and Gates will meet ministers of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council as well as Jordan and Egypt in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday.
The council groups Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
U.S. officials have long made clear they would like neighbors to help more in stabilizing Iraq but the results of their efforts have been limited and analysts have questioned how much impact Rice and Gates can have on this trip.
In a speech in Cairo in April, Gates himself bluntly warned Middle Eastern countries that the consequences of a complete collapse of order in Iraq would be felt in the region well before it affected the United States.