WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration said today that it is delaying its proposal to sell new F-15 fighters to Saudi Arabia, a plan that Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd said is in deep jeopardy in the wake of the Iraqi attack on the U.S. frigate Stark.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, who said Wednesday that formal notice of the proposed sale would go to Congress next week, told reporters today, "It will probably not go next week."
Fitzwater said the delay came because the Administration wanted to submit the proposal to Congress "at the most propitious time to get its passage."
He said he hopes that this will be "very soon."
"I can't go into all the reasons," he said of the delay.
The Administration plans to propose a $500-million sale of 12 to 15 planes.
Too Politically Sensitive
Administration sources said the delay was decided on late Wednesday on the ground that the sale was too politically sensitive after the Stark incident and revelations from the Iran- contra hearings.
"I think it would have a tough ride right now," Byrd (D-W.Va.) said earlier today of the sale. While a week ago he personally was undecided, Byrd said, in the wake of last weekend's events he would vote against it.
The Stark was struck by missiles fired by an Iraqi jet, and 37 sailors were killed. The Saudi air force did not intercept the attacker despite a U.S. request.
"It's obvious we did not get the assistance from the Saudis we needed at that critical moment," Byrd said, although he added that it may have been because of delays in processing the request.
Some officials argue privately that the sale makes sense and should not cause concern to Israel because delivery would be at least three years off. But the sources said other officials contend that the threat to Israel perceived by some of its supporters--as well as the stir caused by the Iran-contra hearings and the Iraqi attack--called for delay.
"There are so many things up in the air right now, it wouldn't get very far," an official said.
Would Replace Losses
The deal would provide the Saudis with F-15C and F-15D jets to replace those lost in accidents. Of an initial 62-plane fleet, four or five are out of commission.
It is the second time that the Administration has decided to postpone submitting the purchase to Congress, which has the power to veto most weapons sales abroad.
Congress was to have received notification last week, but officials said the Iran-contra hearings had "short-circuited" the plan when it was revealed that Saudi Arabia secretly contributed money to the contra rebels in Nicaragua when Congress barred U.S. military aid to the rebels.
There has also been controversy over Saudi actions in the Iraqi attack on the Stark.
On Sunday, the day of the Stark attack, Secretary of State George P. Shultz confirmed that the United States planned to sell the jets to the Saudis. He said the deal would be structured in a way "that we believe protects Israeli interests."
After bitter debate in Congress, the Carter Administration in 1978 won approval for the sale of 62 jets to the Saudis. Four or five planes have since been lost in accidents, and the United States wants to keep the level up to 60.