WASHINGTON — Saudi Arabia transferred U.S. military equipment to Iraq in 1986 and to Syria and Bangladesh after the end of the Persian Gulf War last year without the required approval from the United States, the State Department said Monday.
In all three cases, the Saudis told U.S. officials that the transfers were inadvertent and offered assurances that such transfers would not be repeated, said Richard Boucher, deputy spokesman at the State Department.
However, a diplomatic official close to the Saudis claimed the military equipment was transferred with approval from Washington.
"There is no way in the world that Saudi Arabia would transfer one bullet out of its inventory without getting U.S. government approval," said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition that his name be withheld.
On Saturday, The Times reported that Saudi Arabia had received secret approval from the Ronald Reagan Administration in 1986 to provide Iraq with an undisclosed number of 2,000-pound bombs for its war against Iran. The Times also reported that Syrian forces had taken American-made armored vehicles and that Bangladesh had been granted permission to take U.S. armored personnel carriers after the Persian Gulf War ended.
Boucher refused to discuss the types of military equipment involved in the three transfers but he said that Congress was notified of each incident after U.S. authorities learned of them as required by federal law.
A senior staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee acknowledged Monday that the State Department had notified the committee in a classified letter of the Iraqi transfer in August, 1986. The staff member also said the committee was notified last month of the transfers to Syria and Bangladesh. The committee had been unable to locate any evidence of the notifications last week when asked by The Times.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) said Sunday that Congress would investigate whether the White House had secretly granted Saudi Arabia permission to provide American military equipment to the three countries.
"I do not know whether a violation of the law occurred or not," Mitchell said on NBC's Meet the Press. "I have asked for a report on information that's available with respect to the transfers as well as the applicable law."
The acknowledgment by the Administration that the Saudis transferred U.S. equipment to other countries may have an impact on plans to sell 72 F-15 fighter planes to the Middle East country. Already 236 congressmen have indicated opposition to the sale in a letter drafted by Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica).
According to two Administration officials and the diplomat, the transfer to Iraq was approved by the Reagan Administration as part of its tilt toward Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. The transfer of the Mk-84 bombs was acknowledged in 1986 by Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, according to a classified State Department cable.
Syrian and Bangladeshi troops were allowed to take American military equipment home with them after the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The diplomatic source said that U.S. officials had approved allowing the troops to take the equipment, which had come from Saudi inventories.
White House sources said over the weekend that diplomatic efforts are under way to get the Syrians to return the U.S. equipment, which they said consisted of military trucks. But Boucher said Monday that he was unaware of any such efforts.