Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, heading for the Middle East for a joint diplomatic mission with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, has defended Bush administration plans for major new weapons sales in the region. Rice says the multi-billion-dollar plans will not upset the regional arms balance or halt American democracy agenda among Arab states. VOA's David Gollust reports from Shannon, Ireland where Rice made a refueling stop.
The package, made public just before Rice's departure from Washington, would sharply increase U.S. weapons sales and military assistance to Arab allies and to Israel.
In a talk with reporters traveling with her, Rice defended the plan as a continuation of a long-standing American commitment to regional allies, while assuring supporters of Israel in the U.S. Congress that the military balance in the region will not change.
Under the plan, Israel would receive three billion dollars a year in U.S. aid - a 25 percent increase - with a commitment that funding would continue at that level for 10 years - for a $30 billion total.
Egypt would get $13 billion over the same 10-year period along with additional security-related economic aid to be announced later. Meanwhile Rice and Gates, in their unusual joint mission to the area, will begin talks this week with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies on arms sales to them that could exceed $20 billion.
In the airborne news conference, Rice said the plan is intended to reassure American allies during what she termed a "complicated" moment in the Middle East:
"We are very aware of, and very determined, to maintain the ability of our allies and friends to rely on the United States to help them with their security concerns," she said. "At the same time, we are also determined to maintain the balances, the military and strategic balance, within the region that we've been committed to as well."
Rice dismissed Iranian criticism that the U.S. arms plan would destabilize the region, saying any instability that exists now can be laid to Iran and its backing for Palestinian and Lebanese radicals and insurgents in Iraq.
She said Iran constitutes single most important strategic challenge to U.S. interests in region and to, as she put it, "the kind of Middle East we want to see."
She also said under questioning that the weapons plans should not been seen by autocratic U.S. allies in the region as a sign that that American pressure for democratic reforms will cease:
"Of course it's important that Egypt be able to defend itself and its interests in the region," she said. "Of course it's important that Saudi Arabia, which has been an ally of the United States for decades, be able to defend its interests in the region. And of course that's important to the defense of American interests. But that does not preclude discussions about the domestic course these countries are taking. And we're going to continue to have those discussions, and we are going to continue to press for reform."
Rice and Gates flew separately to the region but will join up Tuesday in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, for meetings with senior officials of Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf Cooperation Council member countries. They both fly on to Jeddah later Tuesday to meet senior Saudi leaders, including King Abdullah.
Wednesday they part company, with Gates continuing talks in the Gulf while Rice heads to Jerusalem for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.