Officials say US to expand aid, weapons programmes in Mideast

The Bush administration will ask Congress to expand multibillion-dollar aid and weapons sales packages to “friendly” nations in the Middle East, partly to counteract Iran, senior officials said Friday.Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will announce proposed extensions and enlargements of foreign aid to Israel and Egypt, and a proposed arms sales package to Persian Gulf nations including Saudi Arabia, before she leaves on a trip to those nations Monday, the officials said.

The Israeli and Egyptian proposals would lock in US commitments for the next 10 years. The total for Israel would rise from $2.4 billion to about $3 billion a year, and Egypt would continue to receive $1.3 billion a year.

Those packages, like existing 10-year packages that expire next year, represent long-standing US commitments to Israel, its principal ally in the region, and Egypt as the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel and a moderate, secular ally and a traditional shepherd of Israeli-Arab peace efforts.

The money and the proposed weapons sales would strengthen US allies at a time of uncertainty in the Middle East, officials said.

The United States accuses Iran of developing a nuclear weapon, which that Tehran denies, but that development could set off nuclear arms race in one of the world’s most volatile regions.

At the same time, sectarian violence and wholesale murder in Iraq threaten to spill outside Iraqi borders and inflame a confrontation between Shiite and Sunni Muslims elsewhere in the region.

Iran, whose leader has repeatedly said Israel should be wiped off the map, is viewed by Israel as its main enemy.

Rice plans to announce Monday the proposed sale of $5 billion or more in sophisticated weaponry for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The sales have been expected, and some details leaked out this year.

The sale would include advanced weaponry and air systems that would greatly enhance the striking ability of Saudi warplanes.

Israeli leaders have worked to block the deal, which requires congressional approval. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates recently told the Israelis that moderate Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia would be able to get the weapons elsewhere, including from Russia.

The comprehensive regional aid-and-weapons package is meant to compensate Israel for the US sale of weapons to potential enemies, but the Arab arms sales nonetheless are certain to draw opposition from pro-Israeli organisations and human rights organisations.

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