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Proposed arms deal tests US Gulf policy. Issues of American influence, Israeli security surround sale to Kuwait

Congress is prompting key Gulf states to shop elsewhere for weapons to defend themselves, administration officials say. As a result, say these officials:

The United States may lose $2 billion in arms sales to Kuwait. The US has already lost billions of dollars in potential sales to Saudi Arabia, as highlighted by that country's multibillion-dollar military contract with Britain announced last week. (Arab purchases, Page 9.)

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American influence in the region may be undermined. Kuwait, for example, is an especially crucial supporter of Washington's current policy and naval presence in the Gulf.

Israel's security (the main reason behind Congress's efforts to block such sales) could even be harmed. The alternatives to US jets are arguably more threatening to Israel.

The problem, US officials say, goes to the heart of Washington's ability to help moderate Arab states meet their defense needs and thus build well-rounded relationships.

US officials argue that the US could have had at least part of the major British-Saudi military contract announced last week. While the Saudis have long sought to diversify arms suppliers, officials say, it was the persistent difficulty from Congress that led the Saudis to seek major arms purchases elsewhere.

``Ironically, Congress may be endangering Israel with this type of action,'' says one well-placed Middle East specialist. Countries who come to feel the US isn't a reliable supplier are buying equally capable weapons with none of the restrictions the US routinely builds into sales, another says.

``The idea that if we say `no,' there is no alternative is a fallacy,'' says a US diplomat. ``The more our Arab friends think they'll be dragged through the mud ... the more they will go to London or Paris,'' if not to Peking or Moscow.

The new Saudi deal, for example, will include Tornado jets, 40 of which the Saudis bought last year from Britain. These planes are arguably better ground-attack aircraft - and thus more of a threat to Israel - than US-supplied planes would have been, officials say.

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Kuwait is also considering buying the Tornado, if it cannot get the 40 US-built F-18s it has requested. While the F-18 can't reach Israel from Kuwait, the Tornado can, US officials say.

But officials hope to avoid that alternative. Kuwait is a hub of United States policy in the Gulf.

It was Kuwait whose request to protect its tankers spurred the US to increase its Gulf naval presence. Kuwait is working closely with the US to press the United Nations peace plan on the Iran-Iraq war.

Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Saad Al-Abdullah Al-Sabah is in Washington this week for high-level meetings, but controversy about the proposed arms sale threatens to sour the visit.

Last Thursday, the Senate passed an amendment that would ban two key elements of the arms package accompanying the jets - advanced Maverick anti-tank and anti-ship missiles.

``This eliminates two of the key functions the Kuwaitis need from an aircraft,'' an angered administration official says. ``This one act by the Senate ... could blow the whole deal which took years to arrange. ... It's a question of practicality for Kuwait. Would you buy a car that only does one-third of what you need?''

The administration argues that the proposed sale is part of overall US Gulf policy. It helps a friendly Gulf state develop the means to better defend itself and share the burden of regional defense.

Nevertheless, lawmakers are questioning the $1.9 billion sale. Congress has until July 30 to pass a resolution of disapproval to block the sale. The ban on the Mavericks, however, is attached to a separate bill and could effectively scotch the sale, if it emerges as law.

A basic thrust of congressional worries revolves around Kuwait's mainline Arab position on the Arab-Israeli peace process. Critics question its political and financial support for the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Rep. Larry Smith (D) of Florida - an opponent of the sale - quipped that ``nobody in the world has been able to give us a real legitimate definition of a moderate Arab state,'' during hearings last week. He worried that the weapons would ``end up in the hands of countries who are hostile to our own regional allies.''

The concern about the Maverick missiles also relates to congressional desires to curb arms proliferation in the Middle East. An aide to Sen. Dennis DeConcini, (D) of Arizona, who sponsored the Senate ban, says the Maverick missiles introduce new bomb technology into a volatile region. The relatively small missiles are also vulnerable to illicit transfer, he says.

US officials agree arms proliferation must be controlled. But Kuwait, they say, is making a modest request in the face of legitimate security threats from Iran, and potentially Iraq, and has a perfect record of protecting US weaponry.

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