The United States has announced a 25 percent increase in annual military aid to Israel, along with a continuation of defense aid to Egypt and plans to sell billions of dollars worth of military equipment to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Washington.
The State Department says for the next 10 years military aid to Israel will increase from $2.4 billion a year to $3 billion. Military aid to Egypt will remain at $1.3 billion a year, in addition to an economic aid package still being negotiated.
The announcements came along with confirmation of reports that the United States is in the final stages of negotiating a large military sales package for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States.
Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns would not confirm media reports indicating the sales will total $20 billion, but he called that figure an 'educated guess.'
In a conference call with reporters, Burns also said the sales of mainly defense systems reflect the importance the United States attaches to the role of those countries in the broader Middle East.
"These countries are countries that serve our interest of stability and of creating the basis for long-term peace in the Middle East," said Burns. "Without them, that would be a very difficult proposition."
Burns says the arms sales are not a new initiative, but rather a continuation of U.S. security assistance to the region. Still he acknowledged that the sales are related to two of the main U.S. goals in the Middle East - the efforts to stabilize Iraq and to counter Iranian influence.
He says the Iraq issue will be 'number one' on the agenda when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visit Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries in the region starting Tuesday.
"We want, and we expect, that there will be political support from the Arab countries to help stabilize Iraq," said Burns. "We hope that there will be economic support to that. And there is obviously a need for greater regional support for the Iraqi government."
"So that's very much on our agenda. But this assistance package is part of our broader strategy, which is in the American national interest to strengthen our partners in the region," he continued.
On Sunday, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, criticized Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region for not doing enough to support the U.S. effort to stabilize Iraq, and sometimes even acting against that effort.
Under Secretary Burns said the Gulf States have expressed concern to U.S. officials about the increased threat of terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and what he called "a strengthening, more aggressive Iran" that supports terrorist groups, seeks nuclear weapons and wants to expand its regional influence. He said the arms sales are designed to address those concerns.
"I think in the region it's going to be understood that one of the reasons for these sales, one of them but not the totality, is to enable these countries to strengthen their defenses and therefore to provide a deterrence against Iranian expansionism and Iranian aggression in the future," he said.
Burns says the arms sales are not directly tied to the U.S. use of military bases in the region. He says the United States wants to continue using facilities in several countries, but no announcement on that is imminent.
He also says the United States will continue to press Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States to move toward greater democracy, but that such concerns will not affect the security assistance announced Monday.
Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says he has no objection to the U.S. plan for a new arms sales package for Arab countries. Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Ali Hosseini, condemned the plan, accusing the United States of spreading fear in the region and hurting relations among neighboring countries. Under Secretary Burns says the Gulf States want to buy the military equipment because of concerns caused by Iran.