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U.S. Arms Pipeline Flows to Gulf Arabs

Bush administration policy for securing allies in the region ahead of a possible war on Iraq includes facilitating high-tech weapons sales, analysts say.

November 15, 2002|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

MUSCAT, Oman — A strong if silent supporter of the United States for three decades, the sultan who rules this Persian Gulf nation has become a major beneficiary of a Bush administration policy to let friendly nations in the region buy billions of dollars of high-tech American weaponry.

As the U.S. shops for allies willing to assist in its war on terrorism -- including a possible attack on Iraq -- the administration is employing a time-honored strategy of using weapons sales as an inducement, analysts say.

Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- all countries where the U.S. has military forces -- have been given approval for major arms purchases. In some cases, the purchase requests had been stalled for years.

Qatar, where the U.S. bases refueling and transport planes and has built a command-and-control center for a possible air war against Iraq, is developing a "shopping list."

As an unspoken quid pro quo, Persian Gulf "host" nations are expected by most analysts -- and many U.S. officials -- to permit the American military continued use of bases within their boundaries even if the U.S. strikes a fellow Arab country such as Iraq.

In Oman, a Kansas-sized nation of 2.5 million people wedged into the Arabian Peninsula, Sultan Kaboos ibn Said has long allowed the U.S. to base P-3 surveillance planes and AC-130 gunships at three airfields. The U.S. Air Force stores tons of gear at bases here, ready to be immediately sent into a war zone.

One thing the sultan does not do is speak publicly of his long and close ties to Washington.

The sultan's reticence, while more extreme than most, is in keeping with a general policy among Gulf nations to barely acknowledge the presence of U.S. forces.

"The higher the profile of U.S. troops, the easier it is for domestic Islamic activists, as well as Iran and Iraq, to challenge local governments by exploiting nationalistic and religious resentments over what is interpreted by some as foreign encroachment," said Joseph Moynihan, formerly a Middle East expert at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates.

Although it has been U.S. policy since the 1991 Persian Gulf War to help countries in the region upgrade their military, the program kicked into high gear after the Sept. 11 attacks. A fast-track process has been established to consider such purchases.

Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, is buying upgraded radar and advanced missiles. Bush has declared the island nation a "major non-NATO ally," which will speed further purchases.

Kuwait, from which the U.S. could launch a ground offensive against Iraq, is buying 400 Hellfire missiles and 16 Apache Longbow attack helicopters. The Apache purchase has been pending since 1994 amid concern in Washington about whether the Kuwaitis needed such advanced firepower. Now it is expected to be completed around year's end.

The United Arab Emirates, which allows U.S. warplanes to use its airfields, is buying 80 Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighters to be fitted with electronic gear to jam enemy radar.

Oman is buying 12 Fighting Falcons for its small air force; laser-guided bombs; Harpoon, Maverick and HARM missiles; and technology that can turn a "dumb" bomb into a precision-guided weapon. The deal is expected to top $1 billion.

Rachel Stohl, senior analyst with the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, which is often critical of military spending, has warned that "these sales are just the tip of the iceberg. After the Gulf War, arms sales to the Middle East skyrocketed."

Scholars who study such sales and their impact on regional conflicts are divided about whether the U.S. policy will increase stability in the Gulf or make future wars virtually inevitable.

Joyce Neu, executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego, said the policy is shortsighted and makes the U.S. vulnerable to wars in which it could face an adversary armed with American weapons.

"The reason Iraq has the ability to fight us now is because we furnished weapons to it to fight Iran in the 1980s," Neu said. "We need to reward coalition partners, but there are other, more benign ways to do it: trade partnerships, economic enticements and such things as educational, cultural and technical exchanges."

Peter Cowhey, dean of the graduate school of international relations and Pacific studies at UC San Diego, disagrees. Arms sales give the U.S. more influence over the purchaser's foreign policy because modern military hardware requires upgrades, repairs and maintenance, and that means continued contact with the sellers, he argues.

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