WASHINGTON — President Reagan is pressing ahead with the sale of additional F-15 jet fighters to Saudi Arabia, despite disclosures that the Saudi air force did not respond to a U.S. request to intercept the Iraqi jet that fired on a U.S. Navy ship in the Persian Gulf, the White House said Wednesday.
Although the $500-million sale has the support of Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and other senior Pentagon officials, there had been "some sentiment" in the White House for holding up notification of Congress of the plan to resupply the Arab state with at least six F-15s, a senior Administration official said. However, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that Congress will be given an informal notification of the sale next week.
Even before the attack on the guided-missile frigate Stark on Sunday night, the controversial sale proposal was expected to touch off a bitter debate in Congress, which would have 50 days to disapprove it.
According to Fitzwater on Wednesday, two Saudi F-15s based at Dhahran, the primary Saudi air base on the gulf, were ordered to fly a combat air patrol mission of an undetermined nature over the Saudi coastline just before the Iraqi missile attack on the Stark.
After the attack, American and Saudi crewmen aboard a U.S. AWACS radar surveillance plane flying nearby asked the jets to intercept the Iraqi Mirage F-1, but the Saudi ground controller directing the fighters said that he lacked authority to order the action, Fitzwater said. The controller "immediately sought approval from higher authority," he said.
But Fitzwater said that, before such approval could be obtained, the Iraqi jet was well on its way north, toward Iraq, and the F-15s were running low on fuel.
In the view of the White House, the Saudi failure to carry out the intercept and force the Iraqi jet to land in Saudi territory demonstrated strict adherence to a chain of command among Saudi military officials, rather than a reluctance to assist the United States.
"However desirable an intercept of the attacking aircraft might have been, the incident illustrates the effectiveness and strength of the Saudi air force's command-and-control system," Fitzwater said.
But that reasoning was not received well by some at the Pentagon, where one official said: "If I wanted to torpedo the rationale, I couldn't have written a more telling line."
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, accused the Saudis of delaying in a successful effort to steer clear of a potentially dangerous situation, and said: "If you wait long enough, the events take care of themselves. That's exactly what happened."
Habib Shaheen, a spokesman at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, said that the Saudi air force "reacted according to its own authorized and proper rules of engagement."
A source close to the Saudi government, speaking on condition that he not be identified, denied that the United States made an official request that the F-15 pilots intercept the Iraqi fighter, adding: "Thank God they (the Saudi ground controllers) were wise and asked for authority."
The Saudis support Iraq in its 6 1/2-year-long war with Iran.
The attack took place as the United States was in the final stages of transferring official operation of 11 Kuwaiti oil tankers to the U.S. merchant fleet--a step that will give them the protection of U.S. naval escorts as they operate in the tense Persian Gulf region under U.S. skippers.
Iraq, engaged in a war with Iran for 6 1/2 years in the Persian Gulf, has attacked merchant vessels it believes are carrying Iranian petroleum and supplies to its enemy.
Fitzwater acknowledged that the Kuwaiti operation will send vessels flying under the U.S. flag deeper into the Persian Gulf than ever before, requiring American warships escorting them to operate under rules that encourage a hair-trigger response to threats.
However, he added, the Administration sees no need to notify Congress under the War Powers Resolution that U.S. sailors may be facing a greater risk of combat, though he promised that the Administration would consult closely with Congress.
The 1973 resolution gives the President up to 90 days to remove troops from combat situations after such notification unless Congress authorizes a longer deployment.
Fitzwater defended the decision to register the Kuwaiti vessels as U.S. ships, even though the tankers have come under Iranian attack as a result of Kuwait's support for Iraq, and said: "We have assessed all of the risks involved. . . . We continue to believe that this is the appropriate position to take, and we intend to proceed with it."