WASHINGTON -- President Bush, faced with growing congressional concern over a $21 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, proposed yesterday a much smaller arms sale to bolster the Saudi military against an attack by Iraq.
The $6.7 billion package unveiled by the Pentagon would include advanced tanks, missiles and helicopters but would not add to the Saudi store of sophisticated F-15 fighter aircraft.
The arms sale is "urgently needed" to defend Saudi Arabia, said Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams, although he acknowledged that it might take as long as three months to begin delivering some of the arms.
"It's important to try to move up the process, and that's what we're doing," he added.
Mr. Williams said the $6.7 billion package would be followed by another arms deal later, but he refused to say what the next sale would include because "it's still being worked out."
Yesterday's package would include 50 units of the United States' most advanced tank, the M-1A2 built by General Dynamics Corp., which is not even scheduled to begin rolling off production lines until 1992.
The other main features are 12 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, 407 armored fighting vehicles and troop carriers, 384 Patriot anti-missile missiles and 1,900 TOW anti-tank missiles.
Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif., citing the tank proposal, questioned whether the White House intended to suggest that the conflict in the Middle East would last three years.
"The so-called emergency arms sale to Saudi Arabia raises more questions than it answers at a time when the American people want -- and deserve -- answers," Mr. Cranston said.
The $21 billion arms package originally under consideration by the White House included 24 F-15s and would have been the largest single U.S. military sale in history.
But some members of Congress accused the administration of using Iraq's occupation of Kuwait to push through Congress an arms sale that would seriously erode Israel's military superiority in the Middle East.
Congressional sources said the White House had indicated it would ask Congress in January to approve a $14 billion arms sale to the Saudis, including more tanks and F-15s. A sale of that magnitude would be nearly double the previous record arms sale of $8 billion, which also went to the Saudis.
The president used his executive authority to sell the Saudis $2.2 billion in arms without congressional approval last month.
That deal included 24 F-15s from U.S. Air Force stock, 150 M-60 tanks and 200 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and 50 Stinger launchers.
Since then, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has assured Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens that the Bush administration is committed to maintaining Israel's "qualitative military edge" over the Arab states.