The Bazaar Way US Sells Weapons in Mideast Wary of Neighboring Iran and Iraq, Persian Gulf States Are Expected to Spend $75 Billion on Defense over the Next Five Years. the Region Is the World's Largest Arms Market

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The menacing American special operations vehicle darts across the obstacle course like a black scorpion, making tight corners and zigzags, and churning up more dirt than a desert dung beetle.

A .50-caliber heavy machine gun is mounted at the back, with a smaller one positioned at the side for the passenger riding shotgun. Jumping off one hill and catching air, it looks more like a desert rally car than a high-tech attack craft.

But instead of secretly sneaking about behind enemy lines in Iraq, as it did during the 1990-1991 Gulf war, this advanced light strike vehicle is being exhibited for sale here at the largest weapons bazaar in the world. Few know the vehicle's capabilities - and selling points - better than Bill Weber, a former Navy SEAL during the Gulf war. Climbing out of the cockpit splattered with mud, he has a smile on his face. His job during the Gulf war, he says, was "to recover downed pilots, use lasers to identify targets for jets, and whatever we could get our fingers into." The climax came during the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi forces, when his platoon - driving earlier models of this vehicle - helped escort the first American military convoy into Kuwait City to recapture the US embassy. Mr. Weber is surrounded by Arab sheikhs, foreign military officers, and arms buyers who are considering the strike vehicle - made by US companies Chenowth Corp. and General Dynamics - for their own arsenals. There could be few better places for marketing weapons systems than in the Persian Gulf, where organizers of the International Defense Exhibition (IDEX) gathered together 750 companies from more than 50 countries in March. Gulf states, wary of their large and militarily strong neighbors Iraq and Iran, are expected to spend $75 billion over five years on defense. Gun-hungry The Middle East is the last region in the world that continues to soak up so many weapons, and there could be no better showcase for "merchants of death" - as critics call arms dealers - than the Abu Dhabi meeting. The United States, the largest arms exporter in the world, has been pushing hard to sell its wares in the Persian Gulf and sent a high-level Pentagon delegation to the exhibition. All the missiles and artillery are on display here: tanks, ships, attack helicopters, jet fighter engines, and every conceivable weapon and munition. More than 170 American companies came to sell and check out the tough worldwide competition. And US representatives - many of them veterans who have combat-tested the goods they are selling - chuckle when they put a new spin on an old adage: "Old soldiers never die," they note, "they just sell weapons systems." The Middle East is by far the world's largest regional arms market, accounting for more than 40 percent of total sales. …