Pakistan must provide written security assurances as part of the $5.1 billion deal in American-made F-16 fighter jets and no equipment will be transferred until anti-diversion protections are in place, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has promised Congress.
Aiming to ease lawmakers' concerns over the weapons package offered to a key American ally in the war on terror, Rice said in a letter on Wednesday that before the first aircraft is delivered, Pakistan will sign a document that details Islamabad's security commitments.
In addition, "no aircraft or munitions will be delivered until US officials have determined that all security measures are in place" and Congress has been briefed on those procedures, she said.
Rice was responding to a letter from Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations, and Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the panel's senior Democrat, who had asked her for written assurances addressing concerns raised by him and other lawmakers.
"There should be no ambiguity regarding Pakistan's obligations in the security realm," the senators told Rice.
"There should also be no ambiguity regarding Pakistan's capability to meet and enforce its security obligations," they added.
On June 28, the Bush administration formally notified Congress of plans to sell Pakistan up to 36 F-16C/D Block 50/52 Falcon fighters built by Lockheed Martin Corp in a deal worth $5 billion if all options are exercised.
Some lawmakers have expressed concerns about Pakistan's past nuclear proliferation record, citing fears technology used in the Lockheed Martin Corp F-16s could be leaked to China, Pakistan's close military ally, and by extension help Chinese arms customers like Iran and Iran's clients in the Middle East, including Hizbollah, which is now fighting Israel.
Difficult to block
Under US law, Congress could block the sale by enacting a resolution of disapproval in both houses within 30 days of the notification date, but such action is rare and it is difficult win the two-thirds majority vote needed to overcome a presidential veto.
Congressional sources said there is no credible effort to do that now and the sale is expected to go through.
A spokesman for Lugar, asked if Rice's assurances satisfied the senator, said: "He believes it is an important response that is helpful in answering questions raised by members of Congress."
But other congressional aides said they were still wary of the security plan, which was still being negotiated and should have been completed before the sale was formally proposed to Congress.
In their letter, Lugar and Biden also expressed concern about administration plans to install upgrades to Pakistan's existing older F-16s at a location in Pakistan because this might allow China -- also a major supplier of new fighter aircraft to the Pakistani air force -- to gain information about the high-performance US fighter.
But Rice insisted the updates will not be done in Pakistan. A Senate source told Reuters the work likely will be done by NATO ally Turkey, one of six non-US sites approved for this sensitive work.
"This sale is a presidential priority and is a key element of our strategic partnership and reflects our long-term commitment to Pakistan," Rice said.
The administration advanced the F-16 sale as the US Congress was taking action to approve a landmark civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India, Pakistan's nuclear rival. Islamabad has asked for a similar deal but the administration rejected it.