American officials have said publicly that the requests were being considered case by case. Privately, they have predicted a series of major new weapons sales to the region.
The sale of the F-15s and the missiles they carry would be worth more than $1 billion to their manufacturers, according to knowledgeable sources. The F-15 is made by McDonnell Douglas Corp. of St. Louis. The Sidewinder is partly assembled in Newport Beach by Ford Aerospace Corp., and the Sparrow is built in part in Pomona by General Dynamics Corp.
Although the Saudis have long sought the F-15s, one of their most urgent requests is for hundreds of thousands of chemical weapons-protection suits and medicinal antidotes--numbers that one official said greatly exceed the size of the Saudi military.
The vast numbers of suits and antidotes suggested to U.S. officials that Saudi leaders, convinced that Iraq may use chemical weapons against them, are interested in protecting large civilian populations from the threat.
Two weeks ago, when Cheney went to the desert kingdom for the first time during his tenure as defense secretary, he was on a mission of persuasion. Laden with briefing charts, satellite photos and a message of commitment from the President, Cheney warned a reluctant King Fahd that unless he invited U.S. forces into his country--and soon--his meager defense forces could be overrun by a tank army more than 15 times its size, leaving Saudi oil riches in the hands of Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
Today, as Cheney arrives at a remote air base in Saudi Arabia, American forces inside that country number at least 30,000, with tens of thousands more on ships operating nearby and on vessels steaming and planes flying toward the kingdom.
The scale of the deployment awed Saudi officials, one highly placed Bush Administration source said in a recent interview. But after years of refusing to allow the "pre-positioning" of U.S. arms caches, Saudi leaders were surprised at how long it takes for U.S. troops to arrive with their armaments, officials said.
"What they've learned is we have enormous time constraints on getting things there," said the senior Bush aide. "They were impressed by how much we were capable of bringing. But they had never really gotten their minds around the scale of things, and it was easy to think it could all be done from over the horizon."
"I'm sure they'd ask us to make arrangements so we could get back the next time," the official added. "Not only will they let us stay, they will rather press us to stay until the danger (Saddam Hussein) presents is removed, until the sting has been pulled from the scorpion. And there are people out there who feel that as long as Saddam Hussein is out there, they're not safe."
"But," he added, "there is a lot that could be done to bring our presence down to zero and still make our capability there substantial."
Driven by a growing fear of long-range Iraqi missiles, Saudi officials in recent months have probed Washington's willingness to sell them Patriot missile systems that have been specially designed to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles.
Pentagon officials describe the updated Patriots as a "mini-Star Wars" system that have become much in demand throughout the Middle East, including in Israel. The Bush Administration has not approved any such sale to Saudi Arabia, but officials said that the kingdom may soon renew its request.
It is still unclear how much military equipment might be stored on Saudi soil and what terms would govern its use, officials said.
The United States has positioned large stores of equipment and spare parts in Israel in cases that could be used by the Israel Defense Forces in a military crisis. The United States also maintains giant warehouses of equipment in West Germany for use by American Army divisions there.
RELATED STORIES: A8-A21, A27 and A34.