updated 7/20/2006 8:16:31 AM ET 2006-07-20T12:16:31

Congressional supporters of India are criticizing a Bush administration plan to sell F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan while acknowledging that little can be done to stop the $5 billion sale to India's archrival.

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The House International Relations Committee was examining the sale Thursday. The hearing comes as tensions soar in South Asia after last week's terror attacks in Bombay, India, that killed more than 200. India's suspicions of a Pakistan link to the bombings have prompted New Delhi to slow a two-year peace process with Islamabad.

Lawmakers critical of the sale say the administration is glossing over worries that the deal could compromise sensitive U.S. technology by exposing it to China, which has close military ties with Pakistan. They also claim the jets reward a country, Pakistan, that provides moral support to terror groups fighting India.

"This material is not being used against al-Qaida. It isn't. The potential is that it would be used in a war against India," Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said of the jets. "We don't need to reward Pakistan for being our friend in the war on terrorism by giving them advanced weapons systems that are not likely to be used in that effort."

Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., praised Pakistan for helping the United States hunt terrorists along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. But, she said, Pakistan has done nothing to stop its "moral, if not material, support for like-minded extremist groups."

Administration rationale
The Bush administration argues that Pakistan, as a valuable, front-line ally in the search for terrorists, deserves military support from the United States. The White House told lawmakers last month that it had approved the sale of 18 new fighter jets to Pakistan. The sale, which Pakistan has long sought, also would include an option to order an additional 18 Lockheed Martin jets and to get 26 used aircraft in its arsenal refurbished.

Stopping the sale would be difficult, lawmakers said. It would require the passage of a resolution in both the House and Senate before a 30-day review period runs out at the end of this month. Bush could veto any resolution, and the sale would proceed, unless both chambers of Congress voted by 2-1 margins to override the veto.

The debate over the jets coincides with a White House push for congressional endorsement of a landmark nuclear cooperation deal with India. Pakistan has not been offered the same consideration, and some see the F-16 sale as an effort to strike a balance of power in South Asia.

India-Pakistan situation
Pakistan and India have fought three wars since their 1947 independence from Britain - two over Kashmir, a Himalayan state that both claim in its entirety but that is divided between them by a U.N. line of control.

Lawmakers also have expressed worry that Pakistan might allow the spread of U.S. technology to other countries. The man considered the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, A.Q. Khan, has admitted having run a nuclear-smuggling ring for years.

"Pakistan is an ally in the war on terror, but they have a checkered past on proliferation," Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., said in an interview. "This is some of our most sophisticated weaponry."

Pakistan signed a deal with Washington to buy the F-16 fighter jets in the late 1980s, but the agreement was scrapped in the 1990s when the U.S. government imposed sanctions on Islamabad over its nuclear weapons program.

Although Washington lifted the sanctions because of Islamabad's support for the U.S. war on terror, the sale of the F-16s had remained on hold.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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