WASHINGTON - The United States is preparing to sell eight new F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, a leading American newspaper reported yesterday.

Quoting senior American officials, The New York Times said that Congress was notified just days ago about the proposed sale of the additional fighter jets, although it is not clear if the White House plans to announce the sale of the super-sophisticated aircraft during Prime Minister Sharif's visit to the White House.

The report said the overture was intended to "bolster a tenuous partnership despite persistent concerns about Islamabad’s ties to elements of the Taliban and quickly expanding nuclear arsenal."

The new aircraft, whose sale could be blocked by Congress, would add to Pakistan’s already sizable force of fighter jets — it has more than 70 F-16s and dozens of French and Chinese attack aircraft, according to the Times. But perhaps of equal importance to supporters and critics alike is the symbolic value of the sale to an ally whose relationship with the United States has been marked by long stretches of acrimony in recent years.

Earlier in April, the US State Department approved Pakistan's request for a billion dollars' worth of military hardware and equipment, identifying Pakistan as a country of vital importance for the US foreign policy and national interests.

Many in Congress fear that the F-16 jets are more useful to Pakistan in its long confrontation with India than for counterterrorism, it was pointed out. It is unclear if Congress will approve the deal: Congress and the State Department are already in a standoff over an effort to sell used Navy cutter vessels to Pakistan earlier this year.

In March, the House Foreign Affairs Committee put a hold on about $150 million in foreign military financing — aid from the United States that foreign allies could use to purchase American weapons and other military equipment, American officials said.

The committee said the cutters were not essential to fighting militants, the officials said. But in a letter sent in February to Secretary of State John Kerry, Representative Edward Royce of California, the committee’s chairman, and Representative Elliot L Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat, outlined their broader concerns about Pakistan.

“We remain deeply concerned that Pakistan has failed to take meaningful action against key terrorist groups operating within its territory,” they wrote.

PAKISTAN TO ‘BECOME’ FIFTH LARGEST NUCLEAR POWER BY 2025

INP adds: A US-based think tank has estimated that Pakistan will become the fifth largest nuclear power by 2025 on the basis of nuclear warheads development performance over past 20 years and its current weapons deployments.

In a new report released by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, two authoritative nuclear analysts, Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, estimated that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons stockpile has increased to between 110 and 130 warheads from an estimated 90 to 110 in 2011. The analysts foresee it possibly expanding further to 220 to 250 warheads in another 10 years. That would make Pakistan the world s fifth largest nuclear weapons State behind the United States, Russia, China and France.

Kristensen and Norris said Pakistan appears to have six nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in its arsenal, three more than in 2011.

At least two other nuclear-capable ballistic missiles and two new cruise missiles, the ground-launched Babur (Hatf-7) and the air-launched Raad (Hatf-8), are in development, they said, adding, that they see signs that Pakistan also is developing a nuclear weapons , possibly a cruise missile, for deployment on submarines.

The report comes at time when US President Barack Obama is welcoming Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the White House on Thursday for talks expected to touch on US financial assistance to Islamabad and the prospects for Pakistani acceptance of limits on the scope of its nuclear weapons arsenal.

The US-Pakistan relationship has been rocky over the years, not least because of US concerns about the growth of Pakistan s nuclear arsenal.

The US is interested in moving Pakistan toward an arrangement limiting the scope of its nuclear stockpile, but there are few signs that any breakthrough is in sight.