WASHINGTON — The Bush and Ronald Reagan administrations secretly allowed Saudi Arabia to provide American-made weapons to the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein and other nations over a period of almost 10 years in covert operations designed to sidestep legal restrictions imposed by Congress, according to classified documents.
Among other materiel, the Saudis transferred an undisclosed number of 2,000-pound American-made bombs to Iraq in 1986 and, after the end of the Persian Gulf War last year, allowed Syria and Bangladesh to take American-made weapons, according to classified documents and interviews.
The transfers were made with wink-and-nod approval from the White House beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing until last year, documents and sources close to the affair make clear, but Congress was not notified.
Under the federal Arms Export Control Act, the President is required to notify Congress when a foreign nation transfers American-supplied arms to a third country without formal U.S. authorization. Congress can retaliate by canceling future arms sales to the country or taking other punitive steps. Congress was not told about a number of the arms transfers by Saudi Arabia, sources say.
But classified government documents show that this notification was not provided because Reagan and Bush Administration officials feared it would lead to congressional opposition and upset other pending proposals for arms transfers to Saudi Arabia itself.
Two Administration officials acknowledged that the transfer of American arms and spare parts to Iraq by Saudi Arabia in the 1980s was part of a covert policy by the Reagan and Bush administrations to arm Iraq by sending U.S. arms to Arab allies who transferred them to Iraq.
The officials, who spoke on the condition their names be withheld, said notification of the transfers to Iraq might have led to disclosure of the covert authorization by the two administrations.
Authorizing Saudi Arabia to provide bombs to Iraq would have violated the Reagan Administration's public policy of not sending weapons to Baghdad. It also would contradict numerous statements by officials of the Reagan and Bush administrations to Congress that such U.S.-origin munitions were not supplied to Iraq.
The new disclosures come in the midst of a high-level debate within the Bush Administration over whether to propose to Congress the sale of 72 F-15 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia. Earlier this month, 236 congressmen wrote President Bush opposing the proposed F-15 sale, saying it would fuel a new arms race in the Persian Gulf.
"The sale of additional F-15 aircraft to Saudi Arabia is incompatible with any meaningful arms control policy," the congressmen wrote. "Such an F-15 sale would represent a significant escalation of the regional arms race."
Since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August of 1990, the Bush Administration has sold $14.8 billion in sophisticated arms to Saudi Arabia, ranging from Patriot missile batteries to fighter planes and tanks.
The transfer of bombs to Iraq was disclosed in a secret State Department cable in August, 1986. The cable said Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, had explained to U.S. officials that the Saudis had provided Iraq with the one-ton, MK-84 bombs.
In addition, classified U.S. intelligence reports show that Saudi Arabia transferred American-made armored vehicles to Syria without formal American approval after the end of the Gulf War, according to two sources familiar with the reports.
Last January, U.S. officials learned that Saudi Arabia also had provided American-made armored personnel carriers to Bangladesh after the war ended, according to classified documents and interviews. The disclosure came after the Bangladesh government asked U.S. authorities to provide spare parts for the carriers, according to documents.
A senior diplomatic official said the bombs were provided to Iraq with informal approval of U.S. authorities as part of the joint U.S.-Saudi effort to keep Iraq armed and fighting during the Iran-Iraq War.
The official said troops from Syria and Bangladesh were allowed to retain American-made vehicles they had used in fighting as part of the allied coalition in the Gulf War with the approval of U.S. military authorities.
Attempts to obtain comment from the Saudi Embassy in Washington were unsuccessful. A spokesman at the State Department declined to comment.
The new disclosure of Saudi transfers to Iraq, Syria and Bangladesh follows recent reports that Israel sold American weapons to third countries without U.S. approval.
On April 1, the State Department's inspector general made public a report charging that Israel had potentially violated the Arms Export Control Act through "sales of sensitive U.S. items and technology to countries prohibited by U.S. law from receiving such items."